The Jimmie Johnson-Matt Kenseth battle atop the current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings takes an interesting turn this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. Johnson and his No. 48 team were dominant in the last 13 races (spanning the entire CoT era and the first Martinsville race of the Gen-6’s existence), winning six times, most recently the 2013 spring race, and finishing inside the top five 10 times. Without much thought, it’s easy to cede this fight to Johnson.
Kenseth might be in better shape than a first impression suggests, though.
While it’s true that Kenseth’s past efforts at Martinsville look rather ordinary — his Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) at Martinsville ranks a humdrum 14th out of 49 drivers with four or more starts — compared to Johnson’s Superman-like record, it is Kenseth’s ride, not his past production, that should garner the attention.
Does the fact that Kenseth, who now drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, a winner of four Martinsville races since 2007, matter?
15.2 The average finish of all Roush Fenway Racing drivers in Martinsville races dating back to 2011 is 15.2. The average for all JGR drivers in that span is 15.29, an almost identical tally.
Martinsville, as tracks a mile and under typically do, highlight a driver’s ability at that specific track more than most other facilities in the sport. Johnson is an inherently good Martinsville driver. Ditto for the likes of Denny Hamlin (ranks second in PEER) and Jeff Gordon (third). Their results are straightforward and in many cases at Martinsville, the car takes on the persona of the driver, which is why JGR’s big swings and misses by the likes of Hamlin and Kyle Busch, two aggression aficionados, affected their average result the last three years. The more balanced race-to-race nature of Kenseth and Greg Biffle at Roush wasn’t studly, but was certainly steady in past Martinsville events.
Still, Kenseth might feel the need to take a more aggressive approach this time out, considering what occurred in the spring at Martinsville.
92.556 MPH Kenseth’s 92.556 mph average was the fifth-best average green-flag speed in the April race at Martinsville, his first there in JGR equipment.
Of the eight fastest drivers in that race, per average green-flag speed, Kenseth was the only one who failed to finish in the top eight (he earned a 14th-place result), meaning the potential for a better finish existed.
Another reason why that miles-per-hour mark and the high ranking are so important is that his average green-flag speed ranking in the four Martinsville races prior to April’s event was 17th. Though organization-wide results might not indicate it, Kenseth’s JGR entry is a much faster Martinsville piece than the one to which he grew accustomed at Roush.
53.85% Kurt Busch has finished in the top half of fields at Martinsville in just seven of the last 13 races (53.85 percent of the time).
Busch is bad at Martinsville. He and his Furniture Row Racing team admitted as much, using one of their allocated testing days there earlier this month. Just how bad is Busch on “The Paperclip?” In the CoT/Gen-6 era, he hasn’t finished higher than 12th there (he holds a 23.2-place average finish during that time frame) and scored a single-digit average running position (ninth) just once. In terms of PEER, he ranks 48th out of 49 drivers ahead of just David Stremme. In the past, the place used to play host to some of Busch’s more fervent mid-race meltdowns, but the proactive decision to test could alleviate some of the typical headaches. A strong run this weekend by him would amount to an impressive exorcism of his personal mental block with the track.
7.8 With Richard Petty Motorsports’ release of crew chief Todd Parrott, the most consistent top-20 team in the Cup Series (per its 7.8 finish deviation and 17.2-place average finish) has been officially broken up.
Aric Almirola’s No. 43 team wasn’t mighty with Parrott at the helm, but was dependable, ranking fifth in relevance percentage (finishes inside the top half of fields) this season before Parrott’s suspension for violating NASCAR’s substance abuse policy. The release of Parrott, announced Tuesday morning, is a blow to Almirola’s development and the team’s progression considering the mammoth strides the team made when Parrott was assigned the lead role prior to the 2012 Chase. Greg Ebert, the car chief under Parrott, will assume the role of crew chief beginning with this weekend’s race.
65.52% Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the best closer in NASCAR per NASCAR’s closer ratings; however the No. 88 team’s base retainment percentage at the finish of races is 65.52 percent, which ranks 24th among full-time Cup teams.
How does such a discrepancy exist? When Earnhardt gains positions, he really gains; his plus-12.9 percent gain in the final 10 percent of races is a series best. Whether he retains or gains position from each race’s 90-percent mark is of greater concern. Relative to the rest of the series, he is a below average late-race position retainer. Once his late-race defense improves, that closer number will directly lead to improved production, team results and, inevitably, point standings finishes.
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.
Photos byActions Sports, Inc.