Crunching numbers for Chicagoland

July, 9, 2009
07/09/09
10:54
AM ET

I got the news fairly recently that I will be the researcher ESPN sends to Indianapolis to work on "NASCAR Now" from the Brickyard.

Even though I'll be experiencing the race from a production truck outside the track, I'll be the first to admit it's a pretty cool deal.

And I'm not asking or begging for work by any means, but I think I could handle a mean catch can if anybody needs me. I'm just saying.

But that led to my being asked an interesting question: Will I be tweeting from the racetrack?

After a quick Internet search (just kidding, I know what Twitter is … to the degree that I have to), I gave it some thought.

Twitter is all the latest craze, the biggest since snap bracelets and Pogs. Who grew up in the '90s? Show of hands? So maybe I should join the likes of Shaq and Lance Armstrong, and take advantage of the only time I'll be mentioned in the same sentence as Shaq and Lance Armstrong.

Would anyone be interested in up-to-the-speed-of-wireless-Internet updates from the life of one Matthew G. Willis? I've been inside my head; trust me, you've got enough to figure out in your own life.

But if you're still reading, you must be somewhat interested in my off-the-cuff style of writing, topped with whatever happens to be on my mind when fingers meet keyboard. So be on the lookout for a possible Matt Willis Twitter account.

Then I'll figure out what the past tense is. Tweeted? Twittered? Tootered?

On to actual NASCAR stuff …

Don't forget Jimmie

Amid the Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart talk after Daytona, and the possibility of Smoke winning a title as an owner/driver, let's not forget there's a three-time defending champion out there.

I don't think anybody is discounting Jimmie Johnson, but maybe you haven't realized that the dude's in third place in the standings, just 18 behind his boss and teammate, Jeff Gordon, for second.

It might not seem like Johnson is his usual, dominating self. However, NASCAR's Sultan of Stat (and one of my new best friends after putting out this great note), Mike Forde, shows that 2009 is on pace to be one of Johnson's top seasons.

Jimmie Johnson's numbers through 18 races over the past four seasons:

Year -- Average running position -- Fastest laps run -- Laps led
2009 -- 8.6 -- 513 -- 887
2008 -- 10.7 -- 323 -- 604
2007 -- 8.6 -- 517 -- 681
2006 -- 10.8 -- 220 -- 330

But wait, there's more

You might be saying to me, "Hold on, Matty. What does that mean for this week at Chicago?"

I say, "Watch your tone and show some respect. That's Mr. Willis to you."

Or, better idea, I respond by saying that Johnson has been the best this season in superspeedway races. His driver rating of 116.5 is tops in the series, 7.7 points better than second-place Greg Biffle.

To compare, the spread from Biffle to fifth-place Kurt Busch is only 4.3 points.

Johnson has never won at Chicago, but he's finished second twice. And in seven career races at the track, he has finished worse than sixth only once.

Can somebody else win?

I'm sure it's possible that somebody else could win. In fact, I'm going to give my pick along with some reasoning.

Matt Kenseth has struggled this year since winning the first two races of the season. Despite still sitting in the top 10 in points, his eighth-place run Saturday at Daytona was his third-best finish since his back-to-back wins.

So why do I like Kenseth to turn it around, even though he's got only two top-5 finishes and no wins at the track?

Well, Kenseth has been consistently good there over the past four seasons, leading large chunks of two races and coming out with a bad finish in one of those races despite having an excellent car.

The average finish might not be eye-popping, but look at his loop-data numbers at Chicagoland the past four seasons:

Category -- Ranking
Driver rating -- first
Fastest laps run -- first
Green-flag speed -- first
Quality passes -- first
Average running position -- second

It usually says DeWalt on Kenseth's car. This week, I think it should say DeWinner.

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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