How good is this No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team, really?
Do not misconstrue that question. I didn’t ask, ‘How good is Matt Kenseth?’ (Spoiler alert: pretty damn). I asked ‘How good is that team?’
How strong are those JGR-built Camrys? How much fuel can those suckers hold, legally or illegally? Can that Toyota Racing Development engine hold up? And this Jason Ratcliff character who took a big gamble with his still-rising star to secure the win at Kentucky … is he actually a good crew chief?
I ask these questions because I see the sum of the parts succeeding at a high level, with four victories in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this year. How good are they, really? Are they fit to win a championship? Championships are won when a few of the parts can out-value, or carry, some other weaker parts.
Kenseth, a consummate producer and a contending driver independently of his team (he has a 2.722 season-long PEER, which ranks as the fourth-best in the series this season) is atrocious at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Awful. I’ll touch on the gravity of how bad below, but this weekend might be the first true test for the remaining parts of the No. 20 team’s total package. Can the rest of the parts carry Kenseth?
-0.083 Kenseth has a -0.083 PEER in the last 12 races at New Hampshire, ranking him as the 45th-most productive driver in that time frame out of 53 drivers with three or more starts.
So, JGR’s manna from heaven is fallible. What now? His average finish in completed races — which is 11 out of the last 12 events in Loudon, N.H. — is 15.6. Those came in Roush Fenway Racing cars. Roush Fenway — emphasis on the Fenway — puts a premium on running well at New Hampshire, which the usually astute Kenseth hasn’t historically been able to do. He earned zero top-5 finishes in the CoT era. Does the JGR No. 20 bunch have enough to lift its driver? A good day could transpire if the performance of a fellow JGR employee is any indication.
66.7% JGR’s Denny Hamlin passed with a superb 66.7 percent efficiency in two New Hampshire races last season.
Hamlin, who finished second and first in those races, has been horrendous in the passing game this season. He sports a 44.30 percent mark (anything lower than 50 illustrates that a driver is getting passed more than being passed) through the first half of 2013. Perhaps New Hampshire can change that and his overall run of bad finishes?
0.31 Hamlin’s terminal crash frequency, the per-race amount that he is crashing out of events, is a series-high 0.31.
Crashes, for the most part, can be avoided. When crashes do happen, the driver doesn’t have much of a say as to how bad the damage will be. In Hamlin’s case, he has had a bad run of luck with crashes that are irreparable. Not only is that 0.31 mark dangerously high — the series average is 0.12 — it’s historically high. In the last seven years, no other driver has had a terminal crash frequency higher than 0.25 (Ward Burton, 2007). Eventually, that frequency will shrink. Until then, it’s ruining the season for a No. 11 team failing week to week in its attempt to resemble a reliable Cup Series operation.
454 and 452 The two drivers that have led the most laps in the last 12 New Hampshire races are, surprisingly, Tony Stewart (454) and Clint Bowyer (452).
Go ahead and admit that you guessed Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson as the laps-led leaders. It’s okay. Stewart and Bowyer aren’t known for running out front, at least not recently. What this tells us is that Stewart and Bowyer have been able to nail car setups well enough to do such a thing, whereas others haven’t (Johnson is the next highest driver in laps led, but is over 200 laps below Stewart and Bowyer’s level). Bowyer’s 10.3-place average finish this season is backed by a relatively strong 8.9 finish deviation, meaning he’s entrenched near the front of the point standings. Stewart doesn’t have that luxury. With a 16.6-place average finish this year, he’s in need of some more insurance (i.e., a win) to continue his chase for a fourth championship.
100% Jeff Gordon has finished in the top half of the field 100 percent of the time in New Hampshire races dating back to 2007.
In fact, the lowest Gordon has finished in the last 12 races at NHMS is 15th. On eight occasions he finished sixth or better. He didn’t win, though, and for a driver who was bashed in the early part of his Cup Series tenure for “winning all the time and having a vanilla personality” — sound familiar? — not winning at all comes as a shock. This mile track might offer his best opportunity to win a race in 2013.
1.250 Expectations are high for Michael Waltrip Racing’s Brian Vickers, who holds a serviceable 1.250 PEER in nine starts at New Hampshire since 2007.
Why the expectations? Vickers’s Cup Series life is in limbo. It has been stated that MWR is interested in him becoming the full-time driver in the No. 55 following this season, but his on-track effort this season has been unbecoming of a potential free agent. He’s serviceable — barely at a 1.000 — but his 0.86 crash frequency is the worst in the series. With rumors swirling that MWR is giving long looks at other free agents-to-be, a solid New Hampshire effort of which Vickers is capable — he finished ninth there last fall — is almost required.
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 by Action Sports, Inc.