Crunching numbers after Richmond

September, 14, 2010
09/14/10
4:49
PM ET

Ah, it's a wonderful sports time of the year. The NFL and college football are well under way. Baseball pennant races are white-hot. Even the ESPN flag football league is going full-throttle.

Full-throttle? Oh yeah, that reminds me. The green flag will drop on the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup on Sunday in New Hampshire.

Note: I didn't really forget -- it's just sort of a cutesy writing technique that's overused and a little hackneyed.

Regardless of your opinions of the Chase, it's here to stay, and for good reason. Remember all those things I mentioned in the opening paragraph? (If you don't, you need to slow down and really savor this article.) Well, NASCAR now has to compete with all of those, avoiding the 400-point championship snoozefests that occasionally happened under the old system.

Hey, I like the Chase. I don't really think the championship should go to a driver who got hot from May to July, then coasted through the last several races of the season. I want it going to the team that's getting it done under pressure at the end of the season.

How about the 16-0 New England Patriots in 2008? The 116-46 Seattle Mariners in 2001? The 67-15 Dallas Mavericks in 2006-07? All of them didn't get it done in the postseason.

In the words of President James Marshall in "Air Force One": "Get off my plane!"

And by that, I mean you had very good regular seasons and would be considered great champions had you won that pesky title. You didn't. A great regular season is lessened without the hardware to go with it.

Now, it's time to look back to the regular-season finale at Richmond with some of my favorite research notes of the weekend:

Ham is reheated

Denny Hamlin dominated, winning five of 10 races in a stretch, then slumped through the summer. However, Hamlin's win at Richmond gives him six on the season and a Chase points lead heading into New Hampshire.

Hamlin became just the third driver to win six races in a season for Joe Gibbs Racing, tying Tony Stewart, who won six races in 2000 for Gibbs. Kyle Busch holds the team record with eight wins in 2008.

What do they have in common? Neither went on to win the title in that same season. In fact, neither finished the year in the top five in points.

Trivia break! How many times has Hamlin held the Cup points lead in his career?

Gibbs-powered

Lost in the pre-Chase chatter is that all three Joe Gibbs Racing entries were strong on Saturday. Kyle Busch finished second behind Hamlin, and under the old points system he would've moved into the second spot in points. Joey Logano was fourth, his first top-5 finish since Martinsville in March.

It was the first time in JGR history that it placed three cars in the top five in a Cup series race. It was its ninth 1-2 finish and the third time that has happened this season.

Trivia break! Who were the other two drivers -- besides Busch and Hamlin -- to finish first and second at Richmond for Joe Gibbs Racing?

Gone in a flash

Under the old points system, Kevin Harvick would lead the standings by a whopping 228 over Kyle Busch. He would be on track to win his first Cup series title and the first for Richard Childress Racing since Dale Earnhardt in 1994.

That's the second-biggest lead that was lost in the seven-year history of the Chase. In 2007, Jeff Gordon lost a 312-point lead over Stewart when the points were reset.

In each of the past four years, a points lead of at least 179 was erased heading into the Chase.

Trivia break! How many regular-season points champions also won the Chase title?

Trivia break answers

1. This is the first time Hamlin has led the points.

2. Stewart and Bobby Labonte finished 1-2 at Richmond for JGR in 1999.

3. Only one. Stewart in 2005 held on after leading the points after 26 races.

Matt Willis has been a studio researcher at ESPN since 2006, working on "NASCAR Now" and "SportsCenter," among other shows. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked on ICTV, on shows such as "Ya Think You Know Sports?" and "Sports Final." He also was a member of the IC Comedy Club and figures about half of the jokes he makes in his column are actually funny.

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