Sonoma may provide points shake-up

June, 21, 2012
06/21/12
4:45
PM ET

Crunching Numbers: Top Drivers May Struggle at Sonoma

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For those of you who know me (we're all just one big happy family in this blog circle), you'll know that I love variety. Which is why I'm glad NASCAR has at least a couple of road courses on the schedule.

I love seeing drivers tested, and the drivers who excel at this type of racing get to the front. I'm also fond of the pit strategy and different approaches that take place during the race.

If you know that about me, you might also know that, as a sports fan, I love me some mayhem.

Unless I have a strong rooting interest, I'm behind a series going to a seventh game, or I'll pull for the underdog. And if you like a turnover in the points, you might get it this weekend in Sonoma.

What do Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle all have in common? If you said they're the top three in the points, you've given me the simple, obvious answer. Try harder.

If you said they all struggle on road courses, now you're smelling what I'm cooking.

All three of those drivers are still looking for their first Cup Series road-course win, and all struggle, especially at Sonoma. Let's use driver ratings going back to 2005 to break this down.

(Driver rating is a formula encompassing many of NASCAR's loop data categories and mirrors the NFL's quarterback rating. Anything over 100 is very good, and it maxes out at 150.)

Well, Biffle's driver rating at Sonoma is a paltry 78.4, 18th-best in the series. But that's the best of the three. Kenseth is a 71.8 (ranking 24th) and Earnhardt's is a 65.4 (27th).

That's why this weekend at Sonoma, I expect some points shuffling, both up from those who excel on road courses, and down from those who aren't in their comfort zone.

Looking for Trouble

Every week, my fellow members in ESPN Stats & Information crunch the numbers and tell us what to watch for the following weekend. Here's what they found:

There are 12 turns at Sonoma, but it's one of the final ones that does the most damage. In last year's race, all three accidents occurred in Turn 11, the hairpin turn, involving 10 cars. Since 2004, Turn 11, along with Turn 8, have accounted for more than half the accidents at Sonoma.

And, for a little more analysis, I went to my main man Ricky Craven, "NASCAR Now" analyst and all-around nice guy. He explained that Turn 11 is dangerous because drivers lock up their brakes in the hairpin. And Turn 8 is a danger zone because drivers don't complete their passes in Turn 7.

The Eliminator: Sonoma

For those of you new to my little blog, every week I use a device called The Eliminator to predict a winner.

It's pretty simple: Instead of telling you somebody will win, I'll point out why everybody else has to lose. The driver remaining, by process of elimination, will be the race winner.

And if you want to see who was eliminated in each step, I'll post the info on my Twitter account (@MattWillisESPN).

1. There has been only one first-time winner in 23 Sonoma races all-time (15 drivers eliminated, 29 remaining).

2. Since 1987, every road-course winner had a top-5 finish earlier that season (11 eliminated, 18 remaining).

3. Of the past 14 Sonoma winners, the 13 who previously had raced at Watkins Glen finished in the top 14 in the last race there (seven eliminated, 11 remaining).

4. The past five Sonoma winners had never won a Sprint Cup Series road-course race (four eliminated, seven remaining).

5. Three of the past four race winners this season finished in the top eight in the previous Sprint Cup race (five eliminated, two remaining).

6. Of the past 13 Sonoma race winners, 12 entered the race fifth or lower in points (one eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Clint Bowyer

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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