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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Can Junior Make the Chase?

That is the pressing question in the media after the first two races. There are plenty of drivers at the bottom of the point standings, but Junior is the one everyone has an opinion on.

Matt Kenseth is the only driver to rebound from 30th or worse after two races to make the Chase. Lost of NASCAR writers and announcers love to cite this stat. This is based off of a whopping three years of data. In statistics that’s called a small sample size. Two races is not enough time to evaluate long-term success. The same applies to drawing conclusions or trends off of three seasons.

More data is needed to make a better argument. Going back to 2000 there are eight drivers that have rebounded from an early hole. That still is not a large number, but does show that one driver each year claws his way back to the front. If you factor in drivers 26th or worse that returned to the top12 by Richmond, the number jumps to 13.

Another factor on Junior’s (or Riggs, Truex, or Kahne) side is there are 12 Chase spots this year. In this scenario, Greg Biffle would have made the top 12 after Richmond. He sat in 38th place this time last year. The same goes for Tony Stewart who was 28th after California.

Looking deeper at history, in 1996 Terry Labonte sat 30th in points after two races. Apparently he felt the season was worth saving and wound up winning the Winston Cup. Under the old point system that is a much higher degree of difficulty. Drivers now just need to crack the top 12 by Richmond to have a shot at the coconut. Labonte also only had 31 total races compared to the current 36 race schedule.

Being locked into the top 35 is another advantage for Earnhardt Jr. Several drivers ahead of him in the points do not have owners points for the first five races. Joe Nemechek is currently inside the top ten, but if he misses a race that is a large point loss for him and other like drivers. Earnhardt is only 122 points outside of 12th place. That is not a large gap over the course of a season.

The biggest reason why a driver can recover from a bad start to make the Chase is being a good driver on a top team. In 2005 Kenseth ran well in the first two races, but lost an engine at Daytona and cut a tire late at California. He ran much better than his finishes showed. Over the course of the season he began getting the finishes and points he deserved.

The same goes for Junior and others. Earnhardt Jr is 23rd in driver rating. He has qualified 5th at both races and had a very fast car at California before the engine expired. The next two months also feature many of his top tracks: Atlanta, Bristol, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix, Talladega, Richmond. Obviously there are questions about DEI and the Car of Tomorrow. Love him or hate him (very few are neutral), Junior is one of the best drivers in Cup and that will go a long way at the beginning with the Car of Tomorrow, plus Tony Eury Jr gives him one of the best crew chiefs.

If Junior is still mired in the 20’s or 30’s after Bristol or Martinsville, then it’s time to panic. Until then, there is plenty of time for several drivers to catch up. Not to mention plenty of time for several writers to get a grip.

Las Vegas Entry Notes:

-54 Cup cars want to race at Vegas this week. 18 drivers will compete for seven transfer spots in the race. Ward Burton, Kevin LePage, Jeremy Mayfield, Mike Bliss, Brandon Whitt, Kenny Wallace and AJ Allmendinger will all try to make their first Cup race of 2007. Three strikes to start the season would be rough.

-Most kids get permission to drive the family car for special occasions like prom when they’re 17 or 18. Jon Wood had to wait until he was 25 for his chance. “Now son, I don’t want to see a scratch on it when you bring it home.” Wood makes his debut in the historic 21 car while Ken Schrader is bumped to a second Woods Brothers entry in the 47. That also means that Schrader has to make the race on speed. Aside from four races in 2003, Schrader has started every Cup race since 1985.

-Gibbs development driver Aric Almirola will also attempt his first Cup race. He drove full time in Trucks last season and will run a partial Busch schedule. He is also one of the first NASCAR Drive for Diversity candidates to make it to the national level. I’m surprised he wasn’t given a full ride at either trucks or Busch for 2007.

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