2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season: By the Numbers

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 5, 2016

2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season: By the Numbers

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Have the analytics people infiltrated the NASCAR ranks? Maybe someone performs some serious homework for the major garages, toying in inefficiencies like the Oakland Athletics and Cleveland Browns (parting ways with Johnny Football doesn’t exactly need an advanced spreadsheet).

    There are certain numbers that signify which drivers have the best chance at winning the Sprint Cup, and that is why we’re taking a swan dive into the deep end of a quality in-ground pool to see just what those numbers mean.

    These numerals examine the drivers who made the Chase from the 2015 season because, let’s face it, that’s all that matters.

    So, if you, like me, love math*, then taking a closer look at the relevant numbers that make a NASCAR season tick will be a rollicking roll in the mud. Read on for a jam on the upcoming season—by the numbers, of course.

    *I don’t like math.**

    **Not true. It’s that I stink at math, couldn’t get through Calculus II, but I love its elegance at a high level.

Laps Led for a Championship Contender: 500

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    Nine drivers led 500 or more laps heading into the Chase. All of them were drivers worthy of hoisting the Sprint Cup.

    Here’s the list: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.

    Thirty of the 36 races were won by these drivers. To lead that many laps means that on any given Sunday (or Saturday night), these nine cars had the horses to threaten every week.

    The Chase renders this moot because also on any given Sunday (or Saturday night), a misplaced jack, a cut tire, a failed engine or a Kensethian altercation are the random acts of randomness that can unhinge a contender in any one of the three pre-Homestead rounds of the Chase.

    But 500 laps led? That’s a number that reflects drivers’ capacity to win, which in this new format is all a team can ask for.

Number of Drivers with a Win: 12

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Last season 12 drivers won the 36 races.

    Nine drivers won multiple races.

    Three drivers won a single race.

    Four Chase drivers won zero.

    Seventy-five drivers got behind the wheel for at least one race during the 2015 season, many of these of the junior-varsity varietal. 

    What this number suggests is that in any given season, only a dozen drivers have a remote chance at winning the championship. And, if we’re being honest, maybe eight drivers have a legitimate chance at winning the Sprint Cup.

    This number makes NASCAR no different than any other mainstream sport. The problem with NASCAR’s Chase is that the eight best drivers, the ones who actually have a chance at winning, at times can’t reach that final eight in the Chase.

    Such is life in year three of the Chase.

Poles Won: Doesn't Matter

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    Martin Truex Jr. won zero poles, yet he made the championship four.
    Martin Truex Jr. won zero poles, yet he made the championship four.Associated Press

    Kyle Busch, last year’s Sprint Cup champion, won one pole. Kevin Harvick, leader of over 2,000 laps in 2015, won two poles. Martin Truex Jr., a championship-four citizen, won zero.

    Johnson, a winner of five races last season, won a single pole (fall Phoenix), so you get the sense that winning a pole is just another way of saying peaking to early.

    Take this driver, a driver who won two poles but didn’t win a single race and failed to make the Chase: The Dinger—AJ Allmendinger.

    Five 2015 Chasers failed to win a pole. So while it’s nice to have the spotlight on Friday after qualifying, poles matter little.

Number of Top 20s for Danica Patrick: 21

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Danica Patrick drives one thing with aplomb: the meter.

    She’s the driver most fans feel either ambivalence toward or hatred, and her yoga poses and relative lack of skill behind the GoDaddy Nature’s Bakery No. 10 Chevy do little to engender support.

    Lest we forget, Patrick won the pole at her inaugural Daytona 500 in 2013 and has six career top 10s to her name. Not bad, not great, but not bad.

    So DP scored 13 top 20s in 2015, and the magic number for Chase relevance appears to be 21 top 20s. With the exception of Austin Dillon, who had 21 top 20s in 2015, every driver with 21 or more top 20s made the Chase.

    Drivers with that kind of horsepower may not win several races, or even one, but it’s the mere possibility of the possibility of winning that living in the top 20 affords.

    And maybe a new crew will help her get there—a change PitTalks.com (via NASCAR.com) noted. 

Average Finish: 18th

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    R Brent Smith/Associated Press

    Taking a good, hard look under the compound microscope at last year’s Chasers reveals an average finish of no worse than 18.75.

    Clint Bowyer owned that 18.75, while no other driver finished worse than 17.08 (Paul Menard) on average.

    Aric Almirola put in a spirited charge on the final race of the regular season in 2015 but couldn’t point his way into the Chase. All the more frustrating was his average finish of 17.92, better than Bowyers’.

    “I feel we have overachieved [in 2015] and really maximized our results week in and week out,” Almirola said after the Richmond race in Tom Jensen’s FoxSports.com story. “I am disappointed to come up a few spots short, but we gave it all we had. and that is all we can do.”

    If drivers plan on pointing in, they better land in the top 18 on average.

Races to Win: One

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Thanks to the plate tracks, the bullrings and the road courses, there are about 10 races, give or take, on the calendar where anybody can win. Call them wild-card races.

    The plate races speak for themselves. The Big One remains a cut tire or someone getting loose in the draft from setting off a cataclysmic fall of the dominoes that could vault a mid-packer to the front.

    Weather, too, plays a part. Look no farther than Almirola, who benefited in 2014 by winning the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400. This past year Dale Earnhardt Jr won a rain-shortened race at Phoenix in the Chase. Kurt Busch won another rain-shortened race at Michigan.

    Point being, due to the randomness of the weather and pit calls by crew chiefs, certain—shall we say—less adept pilots of cars may find themselves out in front at the right time. JJ Yeley led three laps this year. What if he happened to lead right when NASCAR threw down a red flag?

    You got it, gumshoe, Yeley could be a member of NASCAR’s sweet 16.

Number of Wins Jimmie Johnson Wants to Win: Two

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    Why two? Why only two?

    NASCAR’s most famous 5 o’clock shadow has 75 career wins, only one behind Dale Earnhardt Sr. Johnson has won at least two races every year since 2002. Barry Bonds was still, you know, doin’ his thing.

    Two wins are a guarantee. That’s like Larry Bird in the three-point contest c. 1988. You have to think Johnson will be especially hungry after winning five races in 2015 and failing to reach the Contender Round of the Chase.

    The newer Chaser format, now entering its third year, was one of the worst things to happen to a driver like Johnson. A driver no longer has to be the best over the course of the season, just good enough and lucky come Chase-o’clock. A mechanical issue at Johnson’s home away from home (Dover) put him behind the pelota ocho for the remainder of the round. He never recovered.

    If he can reach Homestead, he’ll be looking at the Intimidator's other big number: seven, as in seven championships.

    All stats came courtesy of DriverAverages.com unless otherwise noted.