The analysis has been hot and heavy all week as we gear up for the beginning of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. A variety of plotlines have been analyzed and scrutinized, from the resurgence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the recent struggles of defending champ Tony Stewart. Even Jeff Gordon’s mustache has been a topic of conversation.
Of course, opinions vary on all these subjects. Some people say Jimmie Johnson is the overwhelming favorite to win his sixth Sprint Cup title, while others predict that Denny Hamlin or Greg Biffle will pull off the upset. There are even those who actually like the idea of Gordon regrowing his infamous ’stache of the early 1990s (really?), proving that it is nearly impossible to have 100 percent of people agree on anything.
That is why, in this time of uncertainty over what it all means, we turn to the cold, calculating world of numbers. The facts found in stats can indicate which drivers do well at which tracks, and where the potential potholes are located for each driver during the 10-race path to the championship. So we pulled out the Analog Totalizer 3000 -- otherwise known as a Casio handheld calculator -- and crunched all the numbers the old-fashioned way. Here is what we discovered about each Chase driver and the tracks standing between them and the Sprint Cup championship trophy.
Best Chase track: Martinsville -- 6.4 average career finish
Worst track: Dover -- 20.5 average career finish
Key three-race stretch: Dover through Charlotte (Chase races 3-5). Hamlin has never won at any of those tracks and has an average finish of 15th or worse at all three.
What it means: Hamlin's best tracks are in the second half of the Chase. So if he can stay close to the points lead through the first five races, he should have an excellent chance at winning his first championship.
Best Chase track: Phoenix -- 5.2 average career finish
Worst track: Talladega -- 17.7 average career finish
Key three-race stretch: Talladega through Kansas (4-6). If Johnson can make it through Talladega with a decent finish -- something he hasn't done very often -- then he can use the consecutive 1.5-mile tracks at Charlotte and Kansas to build up momentum for the stretch run.
What it means: Johnson has a victory at every Chase track except for Chicago and Homestead, but his lack of a win at Homestead is somewhat deceiving since he's often arrived with the championship close at hand and has raced conservatively. The fact is, other than the crapshoot that is Talladega, Johnson is strong at every Chase track.
Best track: Chicago -- 8.7 average career finish
Worst track: Talladega -- 15.5 average career finish
Key three-race stretch: Chicago through Dover (1-3). Stewart began the Chase last year by winning the first two races, reviving him from his season-long slump and propelling him to his third career championship. He needs a similar start this season.
What it means: Stewart is the only driver who has won at all 10 Chase tracks and he has a solid career average finish at each of them. He's always been his best during the latter stages of the season, which is why you can never count him out regardless of what he does February through August.
Best track: Kansas -- 10.2 average career finish
Worst track: Texas -- 25.3 average career finish
Key three-race stretch: Texas through Homestead (8-10). Keselowski has struggled on the tracks that close out the Chase, with average finishes outside the top 20 at all three. His late fade last year saw him drop from third to fifth in the standings.
What it means: Keselowski needs a good start to the Chase to be a legitimate contender. He has won at both Talladega and Kansas, tracks that are midway through the Chase, so a strong start could help him stay in contention into the final month.
Best track: Kansas -- 8.0 average career finish
Worst track: Martinsville -- 21.9 average career finish
Key three-race stretch: New Hampshire through Talladega (2-4). Biffle has always done well on the 1.5-mile tracks, which make up four of the final six races after Talladega.
What it means: If he's still in contention at the midpoint of the Chase, Biffle will have a good shot at the title. He has career victories at three of the final six tracks and has finished second at two others. Only Martinsville has baffled him among the later Chase tracks.
Best track: Chicago --10.2 average career finish
Worst track: Charlotte -- 17.5 average career finish
Key three-race stretch: Chicago through Dover (1-3). Bowyer is another driver who needs a good start to the Chase, because has performed better over the years at the tracks near the beginning of the Chase schedule.
What it means: Bowyer has not been terrible at any of the Chase tracks, but he hasn't been great at any of them either. Even his 10.2 average finish at Chicago is diminished slightly by the fact that his best finish there is fourth.
Best track: Martinsville -- 12.6 average career finish
Worst track: Homestead -- 23.1 average career finish
Key three-race stretch: New Hampshire through Talladega (2-4). After a third-place finish at Chicago, Earnhardt's title chances ended quickly last season when he failed to crack the top-15 in any of the next four races.
What it means: This would appear to be Earnhardt's best shot at the championship in nearly 10 years, but a strong start is essential. He certainly needs to have the lead heading to Homestead, where amazingly he has never finished in the top 10 in 12 career starts.
Best track: Texas -- 8.5 average career finish
Worst track: Talladega -- 18.6 average career finish
Key three-race stretch: Talladega through Kansas (4-6). Kenseth has never won at either Talladega or Kansas and has an average finish of 14.2 at Charlotte. He can't win the Chase during this stretch, but he certainly can lose it.
What it means: For a driver known for his consistency, Kenseth is surprisingly not that great at most of the Chase tracks, especially down the stretch. He has an average finish of 16th or worse at four of the final five tracks.
Best track: Homestead -- 7.9 average career finish
Worst track: Charlotte -- 18.1 average career finish
Key three-race stretch: Dover through Charlotte (3-5). Four of Harvick's five best Chase tracks are in the second half of the Chase, so the task for him is to stay in contention through race No. 5.
What it means: Harvick hasn't won a race this season, but he does have career victories at six of the Chase tracks and has finished in the top three at all 10. He would seem to be a longshot for the title, though the numbers indicate the potential for a surprise is there.
Best track: Homestead -- 10.4 average career finish
Worst track: Talladega -- 23.5 average career finish
Key three-race stretch: Chicago through Dover (1-3). Dover is the only Chase track where Truex has won and New Hampshire has been one of his better tracks, so a good start to the Chase is possible.
What it means: The numbers clearly demonstrate why Truex is the longest of longshots in this year's field. He has finished better than fifth at only half of the 10 tracks and has an average finish of 15th or worse everywhere except Homestead.
Best track: Charlotte -- 12.7 average career finish
Worst track: Dover -- 21.8 average career finish
Key three-race stretch: Dover through Charlotte (3-5). Kahne has not run well at Dover and Talladega hasn't been much better, but he has been excellent at Charlotte.
What it means: There appears to still be too much inconsistency among Kahne's results for him to be a serious championship contender. His average career finish is 20th or worse at half the Chase tracks.
Best track: Martinsville -- 7.1 average career finish
Worst track: Talladega -- 16.8 average career finish
Key three-race stretch: Dover through Charlotte (3-5). Talladega and Charlotte are two of Gordon's worst Chase tracks. After that, however, he has two of his best in Kansas and Martinsville.
What it means: If ever there is a wild card who can win the championship, it is Gordon. He has won at every Chase track except Homestead and has a record of solid finishes at most of them. Despite his issues early this season, he is a legitimate title contender.
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