Crunching numbers for California

February, 18, 2010
02/18/10
2:41
PM ET

And so we move back to your regularly scheduled NASCAR.

Let's face it: The Daytona 500 doesn't really have much to do with the rest of the races on the schedule. The majority of the season is run on the intermediate ovals, like it or not.

Maybe it's a good thing we get only four races a year on the restrictor-plate tracks. Repeated races like those traditionally run at Daytona or Talladega (minus the red flags) could lead to far more NASCAR-viewing-related heart attacks.

Who am I kidding? I'd love to see 20-plus leaders and 50-plus lead changes on a week-to-week basis. And I do consider plate racing one of my video game specialties. No red flags there, either. Just have to pause for bathroom breaks.

This week, however, we'll know who's really got the ponies to stay atop the standings throughout the season. Or will we? Don't forget that last year Matt Kenseth was undefeated as the series left California, and missed the Chase. And Mark Martin finished 40th with a blown engine, and ended the season second in points.

Long story short (although with me, it's never really all that short): Don't go drawing conclusions based either on Daytona or on California. Just enjoy some regular oval racing, even as I fire up a "restrictor-plate only" season on the ol' video game system.

Now, let me regale you with tales of the finest of prerace notes heading out to Hollywood:

Where was the champ?

Jimmie Johnson never really got it going at Daytona, then his tire and axle problems led the four-time champ to start his Drive for Five with a DNF. For those of you keeping track at home, that's a DfF starting with a DNF. And thank you for keeping track at home.

No driver has won at California as much as Jimmie Johnson (four wins); however, none of his victories has come in the spring race since California began running twice a year. Johnson has won each of the past three fall races, so that's his specialty. But come on, it's not like he's stunk up the joint in the spring race.

In fact, looking back over the past five seasons, nobody's been faster than Johnson at California, in any situation. Accompanying data:

Jimmie Johnson's speed ranks at California, past five seasons
On restarts -- first
Early in run -- first
Late in run -- first
In traffic -- first

Dude is so consistent, it makes my job pretty easy. But don't let that fool you: I earn every penny, even if I am watching college basketball as I write this.

Where he makes his living

Johnson, a California native, might have the home-field advantage when it comes to California. And in particular, Turn 4 is where he feels most at home.

If you're looking for where Johnson has been at his fastest, it's the frontstretch and the accompanying turns. Over the past 10 races at California, Johnson has made 349 passes in the corners, according to NASCAR's loop data. Of those passes, 245 have come in Turns 1 and 4 -- more than 70 percent of his total passes in turns.

To further pile on the Jimmie lovefest, his average running position on the track during that time is 5.5. Only two other drivers are better than 10th: Matt Kenseth (9.0) and Jeff Gordon (9.3).

Ah yes, what better way to illustrate Johnson's dominance? Well, maybe those unprecedented four straight championships.

At first, you don't succeed

Qualifying isn't quite as important as it used to be. Drivers can win from anywhere in the field. However, it usually helps to lay down a fast qualifying lap and not have to pass 30 or so drivers on your way to victory. At California, though, you might want to take it easy on Friday.

Since this track has opened, only once has the pole-sitter won a Sprint Cup race in 19 tries, a success rate of 5.3 percent. That's the worst winning percentage by pole-sitters at any active Cup series track.

Digging a little deeper, the Lap 1 leader has never gone on to win at California in those 19 races, with the best finish for a Lap 1 leader being Kurt Busch's second-place run back in 2002.

Now that pun in the title makes sense. Think about it some more. Now you've got it.

Everybody enjoy the race, and I'll see you back here next week.

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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