Crunching numbers after Homestead

November, 24, 2009
11/24/09
11:01
AM ET

What did you take away from Sunday's season finale? Well, other than Jimmie Johnson is very, very good and will likely continue to be that good or perhaps even a little better for a long period of time? Call me a realist.

I saw Denny Hamlin come from the back and put on yet another impressive performance in the Chase. If we're going to compile a list of challengers who could deny Johnson's quest for a five-peat, I'm going to start with Hamlin and Mark Martin.

Sunday also gave us reasons to get excited for next season. It looks like Richard Childress Racing is getting up to speed and will take some momentum to the beaches in Daytona come February. It wasn't too long ago, just back in 2004, that RCR last went winless in a season. The next season, RCR got a win from Kevin Harvick in the fifth race. I also don't think we'll see back-to-back down seasons from Roush Fenway.

I also picked up that the snakebitten drivers are still snakebitten. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had his issues but showed a lot of speed in the early part of the race. Elliott Sadler and Reed Sorenson got caught up in a freak pit-road accident. Remind me not to ride in their passenger seats until we have an exorcism or something.

One more thing I'm excited for: We've got some nice rivalries that we can stick in the slow cooker heading to 2010. Hamlin versus Keselowski. Montoya versus Stewart. Cut me, Mick!

And now, some final thoughts coming out of Homestead. Then, you'll have a drastic cutback of Willis in the offseason, but I promise I'll be more diligent on Twitter, and don't forget that you can always reach me at ESPNMattWillis@yahoo.com.

The Lowe-down

I know you're on Jimmie Johnson overload right now, but let's put his streak in perspective. Nobody in the Cup, Nationwide or Truck series had ever won four consecutive championships until Mr. Johnson came along. Not Petty, not Earnhardt, not Waltrip, Gordon or Yarborough.

And since I'm an all-sports researcher out at ESPN, let's put it in the big picture. In the other four major sports (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL), no team had pulled off a four-peat since Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers of the early 1980s. In the NBA, you have to go to Red Auerbach's Boston Celtics to find the last team to win four in a row. In baseball, Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra were the stars of the day when the New York Yankees were the last team to go four in a row. And it's NEVER happened in the NFL.

I'm just saying, every time a team goes to a four-peat, there are legends involved. And, once we've had time to soak it all in and revisit the dynasty, we can attach the names of Johnson and Chad Knaus to those of Gretzky, Auerbach and DiMaggio.

Made you think? That's what I'm here to do.

Trivia break! Hendrick Motorsports became the first team to finish 1-2-3 in points, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. was hanging down there in 25th. Only one Hendrick driver who has run a full season has ever finished worse in points. Who was it?

Ham on a roll

Yes, I'm appointing Denny Hamlin as a title contender for 2010, and of course you have to start everybody behind the 48. But this season was a huge turning point for Hamlin. He has matured, is making fewer mistakes and he's proving he can win anywhere, going to Victory Lane on short tracks, intermediates and at Pocono.

One point that gets thrown around when people want to talk Chase points changes (I'm good with the current system, by the way) is that a driver should have a throwaway race or two.

Well, Hamlin was struck by several unfortunate races in the Chase. But if we up the throwaway number to four and just take a driver's six best points days in the Chase, Hamlin suddenly moves up into the No. 2 spot among Chasers.

Here's how they would rank if we tossed out each driver's bottom four finishes:

Jimmie Johnson -- 1,280
Denny Hamlin -- 1,162
Mark Martin -- 1,143
Kurt Busch -- 1,111
Jeff Gordon -- 1,108

Trivia break! Hamlin finished 38th, the worst starting spot to win at Homestead. Who was the last driver to start worse than 38th and win a race at any track?

Remember Carl?

Last season, Carl Edwards won a series-high nine Cup series races, and was anointed by some as a championship favorite in 2009, despite the existence of a driver who had won the past three titles.

This season, the Roush Fenway cars showed they had not adjusted to the new car or the testing ban quite like the Hendrick and Stewart-Haas organizations. What a change just a three-month offseason can make.

Only two drivers had won more races in a season than Edwards and gone winless the following season, and they both did so 14 years before Edwards was born.

In 1965, Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson both won 13 races, but then in 1966, neither got back to Victory Lane.

Trivia break! Besides Edwards, who is the only other driver in NASCAR's modern era to have the outright Cup series lead in wins in one season, then go winless in the next?

Trivia break answers

1. In 2004, Terry Labonte finished 26th in points for Hendrick Motorsports.

2. You don't have to go too far back. Matt Kenseth won the 2009 Daytona 500 after starting 39th.

3. Kasey Kahne had the outright series lead with six wins in 2006 and then went winless in 2007.

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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