Martin Truex is out and Ryan Newman is in.
That’s the call per NASCAR following the stock car equivalent of the Ocean’s Eleven robbery. In this scenario, Daniel Ocean, played by Michael Waltrip, didn’t get away with his cut of $150 million without breaking a sweat. The spot earned by Truex, via the wild card, was awarded to Newman once a pre-seeding 50-point penalty was put into effect by the sanctioning body.
Now, how does this impact the Chase field?
I’ve made it a point to look at the clean averages and deviations of every Chaser in the last 10 races — the time frame was chosen because, statistically, it serves as a period in which teams better resemble who they’ll be in the Chase as opposed to the full 26-race regular season workload — and the move from Truex to Newman is an upgrade, at least from a sheer numbers standpoint.
8.0 and 5.3 Newman’s eighth-place average finish across eight clean races is the seventh-best mark among Chase-eligible drivers. His 5.3 finish deviation is the sixth-most consistent.
By these measures, he enters the playoffs as a mid-pack competitor among Chasers; however, it’s a slight uptick on what Truex and his No. 56 team had going in the same span. Truex’s average finish across seven clean races — which omits races in which said driver crashed or incurred a mechanical malady — was 9.8, while his finish deviation was 5.5. Newman and his No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing team was a better finisher in clean races by almost two positions, while displaying similar consistency.
41.29 seconds Ryan Newman’s average time spent on pit road last Saturday night in Richmond was 41.29 seconds, which ranked 16th among teams that made the standard six pit stops.
This is important to know, because Newman ripped his pit crew immediately after the race, saying, “We still had the opportunity to make our own destiny and win it on pit road, and we didn’t. I still feel like we lost it on pit road. It’s disappointing … we came down pit road first (on the final stop). We didn’t do our job on pit road. Four tires won the race. We were the first car to be in position on four tires and we didn’t get the job done.”
It’s easy to crack a joke about how Newman “should now apologize because his team made the Chase,” but to be clear, he wasn’t wrong. Getting beat by 15 teams, on average, on pit road doesn’t win races, which Newman was in position to do so prior to Clint Bowyer’s controversial spin. The manner in which he went public with his frustrations could have been handled differently (perhaps, internally), but the problem of pitting is a lingering concern.
3.3 The most consistent clean deviation across the 10 races leading up to this weekend’s race at Chicagoland is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 3.3.
Junior Nation, rejoice! A clean deviation showcases a driver and team’s ability to finish consistently. The No. 88 team, albeit winless, is a legitimate threat according to recent history (Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, the two most recent champions, were low-deviation finishers leading into the Chase). Some might not take Earnhardt’s participation in the Chase seriously, but the driver — serviceable this season with a 1.538 PEER — has been an integral cog in this quiet contender the last two years and once infamously saw a serious Chase run derailed by a slip of the tongue. That said, his 9.5-place average finish in clean races requires some improving.
6.8 The worst Chase race average finish among championship winners dating back to 2007 — the first Chase with 12 competitors — is 6.8.
That 6.8 is a hard average, which includes all races, checkers or wreckers. This is how competitive the Chase has become; a seventh-place average doesn’t cut muster. Care to know how many of the current Chasers averaged a finish better than that in the 10-race span prior to this year’s Chase? Zero. The best hard average finish among Chasers is 10.0, earned by Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 team.
2 for 2 In the two years that Chicagoland Speedway served as the battleground for the Chase’s opening round, its winners — Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski — went on to win the championship.
Is this a sign? There are five 1.5-mile racetracks in the Chase — Chicagoland, Kansas, Charlotte, Texas and Homestead — so a driver and team running and finishing well on Sunday should certainly be considered a good sign; however, it’s vital to be good at every track in the Chase. When Keselowski captured the title in 2012, he averaged a 7.4-place finish on 1.5-mile tracks and a 5.2-place finish on all other track sizes. Intermediate track artistry won’t win a title by itself.
28.2% In the five CoT era races at Chicagoland Speedway, Jimmie Johnson led 376 laps, or 28.2 percent of the total laps run.
His front-running ways went empty handed, though; Johnson has yet to win at Chicagoland in 11 career Cup Series starts (ironically, it is the site of his one and only NASCAR Nationwide Series victory, in 2001). Should being shut out of victory lane in the past be a death knell to his chances this weekend? Considering that teams — not drivers — win races, and Johnson has exhibited some accelerated mastery of the 1.5-mile track with two runner-up finishes in the last five races, he can’t be counted out for the win.
Regardless of whether he comes home with the trophy, it can be expected that the Chase’s first round can put a stop on the No. 48 team’s bizarre bleeding over the course of the last month, in which it finished 25th or lower in four consecutive races for the first time in Johnson’s history as a Cup driver.
David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projections, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.