Crunching Numbers: Year of the upset?

June, 23, 2011
06/23/11
4:02
PM ET

If there's been one prevailing theme to this season so far, it has to be the semisuccessful return of my weekly Eliminator pick.

Wait, no, that isn't it, but if that's what you've taken out of this season so far, then bless you.

No, what I'll remember, at least from the first 15 races, is the "out of nowhere" winners. I'm talking way beyond the unpredictable wins from Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and Brad Keselowski.

No, it's a matter of drivers coming out of nowhere during the course of the race, the beneficiary of late-race shuffling due to accidents, pit stops, natural disasters or some sort of alien invasion.

It's a developing trend. In the first nine races of the season, the winner ranked among the top three in the race in overall green-flag speed. There were only two exceptions. The first was when Jimmie Johnson won at Talladega, a race where you can usually throw out the stats, since everyone's on a level playing field, more or less.

The other was Kevin Harvick's Martinsville win, when he was 13th in the field in overall speed. Harvick's victory was also the only race where the winner did not have a "top-10" car, meaning that the driver's average running position in the race was among the top 10 in that race.

But lately, the only criteria for a winner has just been an ability to stay on the lead lap. In half of the last six races, the winner has not been among the top 10 for a race in either green-flag speed or average running position. Take a look at that chart.

In five of the first nine races of the year, the winner had the top overall green-flag speed in the race. But it hasn't happened in any of the last six races.

Could we see the same late-race unpredictability at Sonoma? It sure does keep me glued to my TV.

The Eliminator -- Sonoma Edition

Most people just pick winners -- some by hunches, some by stats and some by just picking a name off the top of their head.

I don't pick winners, I pick losers. I'll make my race pick by telling you why all but one driver in the field just can't win.

And if you doubt the mighty Eliminator power, check out the U.S. Open Golf Eliminator I did early last week before the tournament. McIlroy!!!

1) Since 1987, every road course winner had a top-5 finish earlier that season. (18 drivers eliminated, 26 remaining).
2) There's only been one first-time race winner in 22 all time Sonoma races. (Five eliminated, 21 remaining).
3) Of the last 13 Sonoma winners, 12 who had previously raced at Watkins Glen finished in the top 14 in the last race there. (12 eliminated, nine remaining).
4) Of the last 18 Sonoma winners, 16 who had previously raced there had a top-15 finish in the last race (five eliminated, four remaining).
5) Each of the last four Sprint Cup Series race winners finished in the top 20 in each of the last three races (two eliminated, two remaining).
6) Of the last 12 Sonoma winners, 11 entered the race fifth or worse in the points. (one eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Jeff Gordon

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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