What do the numbers say exiting Daytona?

February, 17, 2009

Post-Daytona buzz

That buzz isn't just coming from Matt Kenseth's pit crew, known as the Killer Bees.

One might think it strange that nobody was talking about Matt Kenseth coming into the Daytona 500. Of course, one might not also be looking at Kenseth's Speedweeks and career at Daytona at large.

Kenseth finished a very modest eighth in the crash-filled Budweiser Shootout and 26th in his Gatorade Duel after being involved in a wreck. He started 39th and went to a backup car, and had previously never finished better than ninth in his Daytona 500 career. So if he wasn't a contender in your mind, you definitely were not alone.

Kenseth may have been lucky to be running up front when the rain came, only leading for 20 seconds of green-flag racing, but he had the car to run up front when he wanted. You may have not seen Kenseth coming, but check out where he was throughout the race.

Matt Kenseth in 2009 Daytona 500:
Start -- 39th
Lap 20 -- 17th
Lap 40 -- third
Lap 60 -- ninth
Lap 80 -- fifth
Lap 100 -- sixth
Lap 120 -- 22nd
Lap 140 -- second
Lap 152 -- first

What makes the 22nd-to-second run so much better is that Kenseth was back in third by Lap 130. And in a reversal of fortune, after pushing Kevin Harvick to a 2007 Daytona 500 win, it was Harvick who pushed Kenseth by Elliott Sadler on Sunday.

Instead of walking you step-by-step through the history that Kenseth and the No. 17 team made Sunday, let's go lightning-round, research style, on this bad boy. Begin!

Kenseth's Daytona 500 win was the first ever for Roush Fenway Racing, which had previously finished second with Kurt Busch (twice) and Jeff Burton. The team had won Daytona's July race three times. Kenseth's 39th-place start was the worst of any of the 51 Daytona 500 winners, besting Kevin Harvick's mark from 2007.

Kenseth led only 20 seconds of green-flag racing, but with the caution laps, led seven laps overall. That's the fifth-fewest laps led by any Daytona 500 winner. Which leads me to …

Trivia break! Which two drivers share the record for fewest laps led in winning a Daytona 500, and for how many laps did they lead? Answers are available at the bottom.

Ken you feel it?

Maybe it's time to take a step back and look at Matt Kenseth's career. He has won a Daytona 500 and a series championship. He also has won the night race at Bristol and the 600-mile race at Charlotte -- and he won the latter as a rookie.

So by my calculations, he has won three of the five biggest races of the season (give me a Southern 500 and Brickyard win, to make it five big ones, although I don't have a nickname for these five races; maybe, just The Big Ones, or Bigguns).

Kenseth also has won Rookie of the Year and an IROC title. Let's not forget that he never has missed a Chase. Jimmie Johnson is the only other driver who can make that claim.

Can we call him one of the elite drivers of the decade? Let's look at the ranks and debate, shall we?

Matt Kenseth NASCAR ranks since 2000:
Wins -- 17 (sixth)
Top-5s -- 88 (fourth)
Top-10s -- 161 (third)
Laps led -- 5,442 (fifth)
Points -- 40,352 (third)
Titles -- 1 (T-third)

Opinions? Thoughts? Let's not forget some other parts of Kenseth's legacy -- namely, that he ranked sixth in his Cup debut, subbing for Bill Elliott at Dover in 1998, and that he led the series with five wins in 2002. Also, his 2005 rally to make the Chase remains one of the more impressive feats since the format was implemented.

Exhale if you're on Kenseth overload now. I'll move on shortly. But not until I take care of this …

Trivia break! Daytona 500? Check. IROC title? Check. Sprint Cup championship? Check. Aside from Matt Kenseth, only three other drivers have completed that checklist. Who are they?

No Dodging this issue

Taking a quick glance at the box score, one is struck by the performance of the Dodges, but more closely focused on the new Richard Petty Motorsports team.

RPM, as the group will be known to the more engine-tuned, was fast -- and also fortunate to avoid the big wreck. AJ Allmendinger showed he could run up front, and finished a career-high third. Elliott Sadler was mere seconds away from moving up front when the final caution came out, and still finished with a top-5. Reed Sorenson kept the No. 43 up in the lead pack all day.

That's an impressive feat for a team that saw mergers, upheaval and lawsuits in the offseason -- not to mention some pretty biting comments from Kyle Petty. Only Penske and RPM are still running Dodges, and it was nice to hear some good news Sunday out of the Petty camp.

The three RPM cars (Kasey Kahne excluded) joined Kurt Busch among Dodges in the top 10 -- the most since the rain-shortened New Hampshire race last June. However, that field was jumbled when pit stops came before the rain started.

To really pinpoint the last time a field of Dodges was this strong, you have to go back to last year's Daytona 500, when Dodges made up 60 percent of the top 10. In fact, it was six of the top eight. Dodges are fast in the draft, which was proved again Sunday, but they weren't fast in the time trials. Count me among the eager to find out if they'll be fast at Fontana, where the restrictor plate -- and all bets -- are off.

Trivia break! Four drivers finished in the top 10 in both the 2008 and 2009 Daytona 500s, but only one driver has finished in the top 10 in the Great American Races in each of the last three years. Who?

Trivia breaks answer time

1.) Kevin Harvick (2007) and Benny Parsons (1975) each led only four laps on their way to winning the Great American Race.

2.) In addition to Matt Kenseth, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt and Cale Yarborough are the drivers who have won a Sprint Cup title, an IROC title and a Daytona 500.

3.) Elliott Sadler has had not three, but four straight Daytona 500 top-10 finishes, spanning his time with Yates, Gillett Evernham and RPM. Not bad for a guy who was almost fired this offseason.

Matt Willis is a studio researcher at ESPN.



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