Crunching numbers for the Coca-Cola 600

May, 21, 2009

I know this weekend is the longest NASCAR race of the year, in mileage that is, at 600 miles. But I hope you're not expecting a marathon blog entry to go along with it.

In fact, by my logic, I should actually write a shorter blog entry so you can spend your time watching Formula One at Monaco, the Indianapolis 500 and the Coke 600. I think you could breeze through this during a commercial break. You wouldn't hurt my feelings, I swear.

(sobs to self)

That felt good. Got it out of my system.

All three races are gems, although I'd love to see the Indy 500 start time pushed back to noon like in days of yore so the electricity that comes with a driver's attempt to run both races could return. I won't go more into that here, because my fellow writer Ryan McGee has already covered the topic.

I invite you to check it out, but promise me you'll come back to my blog when you're done: McGee: Make the double doable again

Let's stick to NASCAR for now. There's two ways to approach this race.

First, you can try to find a first-time winner. This race has provided some first-time winners who went on to become champions. The list reads like a Hall of Fame ballot: Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and David Pearson.

Or, we can look at Jimmie Johnson and Jimmie alone. He's already won here five times and needs just one more to tie Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for the track record.

I choose Johnson; let's do this.

Appearances are deceiving

Sure, Jimmie Johnson hasn't won at Charlotte since sweeping there in 2005. And I'll give you the fact he doesn't have a top-5 there over the past two seasons. But there's more there than meets the eye.

Mike Forde, the Sultan of Stats over at NASCAR, hooked me up with some data which shows that, despite his three finishes of 10th or worse there in the past four races, Johnson has actually been running better.

Jimmie Johnson's past four seasons at Charlotte
Stats -- 2005-06 -- 2007-08
Avg. finish -- 1.5 -- 17.3
Laps led -- 120 -- 280
Avg. run pos. -- 7.9 -- 6.6
Fastest laps run -- 104 -- 175

That's right, his finish has been nearly 16 spots worse in the past two years compared to the previous two, but he's led more than twice as many laps and averages a spot better on the track.

Johnson is overdue for a win at the track that bears his sponsor's name. There's no stat for sponsor names, but there really should be.

The 48 and the field

It's not just that Jimmie Johnson has been incredible at Charlotte, but the driver of the No. 48 really distanced himself from the field in those races. Glancing back over the past four seasons shows us that Johnson's driver rating (think quarterback rating that maxes out at 150 and anything over 100 is very solid) is an eye-opening 117.1.

That number becomes even more staggering when you consider there's only one other driver over 100, that being Kyle Busch, who just squeaks in at 100.4. That's a spread of nearly 17 points between first and second. The spread from second place to third-place Kasey Kahne is a mere three points.

In fact, there are only three other drivers with a driver rating over 90 in that span. And it's not a Hendrick train either: The next-highest driver who was Hendrick for at least part of that time is Dale Earnhardt Jr. in eighth. Jeff Gordon is actually back in 10th.

Nice spread

You're probably saying, "Matt, you handsome devil, 16.7 seems like a pretty big spread between the top two driver ratings at a track."

First of all, thank you, I like getting complimented.

Second, yeah, that's pretty big. Among tracks where the series runs twice a year, that's the third-biggest spread between the highest- and second-highest-ranked drivers in driver rating, a stat that goes back to 2005.

Biggest spread between top two driver ratings
(Tracks run at twice a season)
Phoenix -- 17.6 (Jimmie Johnson over Kurt Busch)
Pocono -- 16.8 (Denny Hamlin over Kurt Busch)
Charlotte -- 16.7 (Johnson over Kyle Busch)

After those tracks, no track has a spread bigger than 10 between the first- and second-highest ratings. Johnson has two of them, and it's full of Busches running second.

Enjoy all the racing this weekend, fire up the grill and celebrate the weekend. But especially, Happy Memorial Day!



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