Crunching numbers for Talladega

October, 28, 2010
10/28/10
10:21
AM ET

As a NASCAR fan and a writer, I find it quite an honor to be featured here on ESPN.com, and I'm willing to accept the fact that maybe I'm one of the lower-profile writers here on the Web site. Who doesn't love the lowered expectations? I thrive on them.

However, my role often directly leads to a lack of reader interaction. Namely, I don't get reader e-mails. But everybody loves a mailbag column, so why should I get left out of the fun?

I mean, I don't have the history in the sport like Ed Hinton. Maybe I don't have the news contacts of a Terry Blount or David Newton. And I certainly don't have the southern charm of a Marty Smith. But, if he has his six, I can at least have my two!

So, with the Chase very much in the air and moving ahead to one of the most exciting races on the schedule, a wild card if there was one in the Chase, I thought this would be an ideal time to guilt two friends I know read my column regularly into representing my legions of rabid fans with the following preapproved questions:

Matt,

I've heard a lot about possible changes to the Chase next season and I for one am completely in favor of expanding the field. How about an automatic Chase berth for any son of a seven-time cup champion? Anyone who just so happens to fit this criteria should be in. Maybe they could even start the Chase with a 100 point lead. What do you think?

-- Jrfan88, Kannapolis, N.C.

Dear Junior fan, I can clearly see this letter's bias and will not be fooled by your favoritism. The truth is that Kyle Petty's best days are long behind him, and while he might've won a few races, he'll never be a championship contender again. Not until he cuts of that ponytail, you hippie!

Matt,

What offseason moves does Joe Nemechek need to make to become a contender again?

-- Mark, Garfield Heights, Ohio

Geez, I can't believe I had to wait two whole questions to get to the Joe Nemechek conversation. Well, my Ohio native friend, if this past summer has taught me anything, it's that his first move to becoming a championship contender is joining the Miami Heat.

Now it's time to take my talents to my Talladega prerace notes!

Back in the mix

And all of a sudden, Denny Hamlin is just six points behind Jimmie Johnson for the Chase points lead. However, he's failed to finish each of the past two Chase races at Talladega, putting up a 38th and 39th in those two races. And he's never won a restrictor-plate race.

On the flip side (which is totally the better side), Hamlin does a good job of getting to the front, having led at least one lap in each of his nine career Talladega starts. And his loop data numbers back up the fact that Hamlin is in a ride that he can drive to the front.

Despite the lack of wins, no driver has a better average position at Talladega dating back to 2005 than Hamlin's 13.8, and his teammate Joey Logano is second in that category. Likewise, Hamlin's 95.9 driver rating at Talladega is also tops, with Logano right behind in second.

Making a pass

No, don't get the wrong idea. Unless you're beautiful, single and interested in NASCAR bloggers, then you can contact my editors for my information.

The key at Talladega obviously is being able to make up ground through the field late in the race, so I checked out the green-flag pass differential at Talladega over the past five seasons. The mission: Simply to be able to pass more than being passed, for when you have to drop the hammer and get to the front.

Two drivers separated themselves from the field. Jamie McMurray was a plus-187, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a plus-186. One has won recently at Talladega, the other won a lot several years ago. Unless they get caught up in the "big one," you can expect them to be factors on Sunday.

Third on that list, just for the record, is my dark horse for Sunday's race. Roush Fenway's David Ragan.

Talladega tidbits

Although I'm always of the opinion that the best drivers, the cream of the crop, will find their way to the front at Talladega, I'm also going to say that we'll see a lot of drivers up front, and there are many potential candidates for a win Sunday.

I mean, look at the spring race, which set NASCAR Cup Series records with 29 leaders and 88 lead changes. Those lead changes completely blew away the previous record, which was 75 at Talladega in 1984.

Furthermore, no driver ran the fastest lap more than eight times in the spring race. Clint Bowyer finished in the top 10 and didn't run the fastest lap a single time in the race. Kevin Harvick, the race winner, was only in the top 15 for 28 percent of laps.

But you don't need me to tell you this is anybody's ballgame. So, that's all I have for you this week. Enjoy the race!

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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