They say everything is bigger in Texas, and it looks as though that includes the points lead.
Allow me to do my job for a moment and put this in perspective. I am a researcher, after all. I might even take a break from my usual early-column goofiness …
Well, maybe just one real quick.
Who's got two thumbs and is going to break down the points situation? This guy (points at self).
Johnson is up 183 in the points with three races remaining, and can clinch by just averaging a ninth-place finish down the stretch. Well, Johnson hasn't finished worse than ninth in his past eight races period, let alone just averaging a ninth.
A ninth? Jimmie Johnson laughs in the face of a ninth. Over the past five seasons, Jimmie Johnson's average finish in the season's final three races is sixth. In those 15 races, Johnson's won three times, finished second five more and has finished worse than ninth only once. That was a 40th in the 2005 season finale.
What about that 183-point lead? Well, Johnson actually tacked an extra 34 points onto his lead with his championship-caliber runner-up run at Atlanta. Before this season, the biggest lead any driver had in the Chase at this point was a 96-point cushion for Kurt Busch in 2004. He followed that up with a 42nd in his next race and went on to win the championship by just eight points.
Well, let's play the what-if game here for a second. (Then, who wants to play Parcheesi, or possibly even a round in EA Sports "NASCAR '09"? CHEAP PLUG!!!)
If Johnson were to finish 42nd this weekend at Texas, and Carl Edwards did just what he did in the fall, win and lead the most laps, Johnson's lead would be down to 37. That sounds much more manageable, and clearly isn't out of the question. It was just last year at Texas that Johnson crashed and failed to finish, limping out of Texas with a 38th in the spring race.
The biggest lead ever made up with three races to go (under the modern points system) was 49 by Dale Earnhardt in 1990. But points are fickle, belts come loose and drivers like ______________ are still out there running laps. I left the name blank to elude those pesky lawsuits (ESPN lawyers want to avoid them), but go ahead, print out the column, and fill in the driver you think is most likely to cause issues.
Improbable, yes. Impossible, no.
But I digress. You came here for the Eliminator, and eliminate I shall!
Trivia break! This is the fourth fall race at Texas, and it comes fresh off another race at a 1.5-mile track, at the tri-oval in Atlanta. My question is, what has been the worst Atlanta finish by a driver who went on to win the next week at Texas?
There are 48 drivers in Texas this week, including Brad Keselowski, attempting his Sprint Cup debut, but only one will go home happy. It's been awhile since I've predicted a winner, so let's start with a twist.
Eleven of the past 12 winners at Texas finished worse than 19th in their last Texas race. Picking drivers who excel just wasn't working for me, so let's get rid of the top 19 drivers from the spring race. It seems like the reasonable thing to do.
OK, enough with messing around with drivers who weren't good. Every fall winner at Texas, and the past four Texas winners overall, finished in the top 15 in the last Charlotte race. That race is still fresh in our minds, and still on the minds of the 23 drivers who are eliminated. Didn't take us long to get down to six.
Now we'll cut that in half. This is the streak that keeps on giving. The past 12 Sprint Cup winners this season finished no worse than 13th in that race last season. Another three are gone, including former Texas winners Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne.
Time to get you people a winner. Texas results seem to sync up pretty well with those at Kansas. In fact, every fall winner at Texas finished in the top four in that season's Kansas race. That takes out Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch, leaving just one.
Trivia break! I pulled a little sneakery on you there. In the three years the series has been running a fall race at Texas, the Atlanta winner also won the next week at Texas. Carl Edwards in 2005, Tony Stewart in 2006 and Jimmie Johnson last year. Good news for Carl Edwards, but he's not the official Eliminator pick this week.
Just getting in under the deadline, look for Jeff Gordon to get into Victory Lane this year, his 15th consecutive year with a Cup Series win. Remember, the numbers don't lie.
Eleven of the past 12 Texas winners finished 20th or worse in their last Texas race (19 drivers eliminated, 29 remaining).
Drivers eliminated: Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, David Gilliland, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Travis Kvapil, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman, David Ragan, Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers.
The past four Texas winners finished in the top 15 in the last Charlotte race (23 drivers eliminated, 6 remaining).
Drivers eliminated: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Dave Blaney, Bryan Clauson, Bill Elliott, Robby Gordon, Sam Hornish Jr., Brad Keselowski, Bobby Labonte, Joey Logano, Chad McCumbee, Casey Mears, Joe Nemechek, Max Papis, Tony Raines, David Reutimann, Scott Riggs, Johnny Sauter, Elliott Sadler, Ken Schrader, Regan Smith, Scott Speed and Michael Waltrip.
And your winner is: Jeff Gordon.
Matt Willis is a studio researcher at ESPN.