What's up, NASCAR audience? Enjoy the off week?
Hey, put that bracket down and pay attention!
Actually, who am I kidding? I love the brackets. I actually had to fight the urge to fill one out for the NIT. Did you have Jacksonville over Arizona State in the 8-over-1 upset? Um, I didn't. Well, I wouldn't have if I had filled out that NIT bracket. I'll take the brackets in any form I can get them. I especially love the "SportsNation" specials in which it has a bracket. And you can catch "SportsNation" at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
(Note to editors: You can put the extra cash into my next paycheck. That's Matthew Willis. Right, Willis with two L's.)
So, by popular demand, and by popular I mean that I wanted to do it once again, I'm bringing back the NASCAR bracket. The NASCAR season syncs up pretty well with the NCAA tournament. The crazy first two weekends will be on the same weekends as the Bristol and Martinsville races, pretty wild sites. Then the quarters and semis will be at Texas and Phoenix, where the cream will rise to the top. And where better to hold the finale than at Talladega, where anything can happen?
The system is simple: The top 32 in points are squared off one-on-one, 1 versus 32, 2 versus 31, etc. The better-finishing driver moves on and lives to drive another day. I'll quickly list the matchups and then head on to the Bristol analysis you came here begging for.
Pretty intriguing matchups. How about two of the best short-track drivers on the road at this time, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin? One fan favorite, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Carl Edwards, will be heading home after Round 1. Jimmie Johnson doesn't draw an easy matchup, either, taking on another short-track expert in Ryan Newman.
But let me now move on to Bristol, previewing Sunday's race with some of the finest in loop data statistics, with a nod to NASCAR Sultan of Stats Mike Forde.
It's the first short-track race of the 2010 season, so it might be time to flash back to the six short-track races from last season, two apiece at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond. By a large margin, Denny Hamlin was the top driver on the short tracks last season, with a driver rating of 127.0. Then it's a jump back to Mark Martin at 114.4. And to give you an idea of the separation the rest of the way down the list, No. 3 is Kyle Busch with a 114.2 rating.
Although Hamlin has never won at Bristol, he's finished sixth or better in each of the past four races at the bullring, including second in this race last season behind teammate Busch. But it's not just short-term success for Hamlin. Check out his speed ranks in ALL situations at Bristol during the past five seasons:
• Early in run -- first
• Late in run -- first
• Overall speed -- second
• In traffic -- second
• On restarts -- third
Just to give you a frame of reference: Speed early/late in a run is the best in the first/last 25 percent of a run since a pit stop. Speed on restarts is on the first two laps after a restart.
Beating around the Busch
There's no doubting the abilities of the Busch brothers at Bristol, where a combined eight wins tell the story. Or do they?
If I had to take one Busch brother Sunday, I'd lean toward the younger Kyle, who has won three of the past six Bristol races, including a sweep of last season. And as much as I hate to say it, Kurt might be living off his reputation at Bristol. In his past seven starts at Bristol, Kurt hasn't finished in the top five, with just two top-10 finishes. He hasn't even led at Bristol in the past four races there.
Kyle, on the other hand, has had the fastest car on the track more often than anyone else during the past five years at Bristol, with 397 fastest laps run in that time. Second-place Denny Hamlin has 238, 160 behind Kyle.
It wouldn't be March Madness if I didn't give you a Cinderella to look out for on Sunday. And I came prepared.
I like Marcos Ambrose to turn some heads Sunday. He ran great there last year, and he leads all drivers in average running positions and green-flag speed at Bristol, albeit in a fairly limited sample size. But that's not even the coolest nuggets for the Tasmanian Devil.
Ambrose is unquestionably a road-racing ace, but Watkins Glen is just his second-best track in terms of driver rating. So his best track must be Sonoma, right? Nope, that's his third-best track.
Yes, Bristol is statistically Marcos Ambrose's best track, with a series-high driver rating of 108.2.
That's all I have for you this week. Enjoy the race!