Commentary

Numbers don't lie: Gordon will win his fourth 500 Sunday

The Eliminator: Daytona

Updated: February 17, 2008, 5:02 PM ET
By Matthew Willis | ESPN.com

Here we go.

A mere three months after the 2007 Sprint Cup season ended, we're ready to go with the 2008 installment. We have drivers in new rides, teams with new manufacturers and a whole new crop of open-wheel drivers trying to make a name for themselves in NASCAR.

Pretty exciting, eh? Well, remember that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Hooray! A cliché! (And additional points for rhyming).

Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart can't stay off each other on the track, and Hendrick is still, for lack of a better term, good. But 2008 is a whole new year, and as we move into the season's biggest race, we'll have a 43-way tie for first place in the points as the green flag waves for the first time.

NASCAR is the only sport that starts its season with the most important event. The winner of this race will take the points lead to California, but also will be able to put his name up alongside the legends of the sport. Everyone and their mother (including my mother) is making picks for the Great American Race, but most people will pick a winner based on practice speeds, momentum or just a gut feeling.

That's where I come into play.

If you weren't with us last year, first of all -- hi! Second, this is a little column known as The Eliminator. Basically, while everybody else is picking a winner, I pick losers. Using statistics, trends and race history, I rule out drivers until there is only one remaining. By process of elimination, that last driver undoubtedly will win the race.

Why do I do this? Besides because I'm a dork? Well, it pads my numbers. Every race I pick, I'm spot-on with most of the losers. The most I've ever missed is one. Imagine the success rate! One time, I even picked a winner correctly, I think we can all share in that moment together. So, this week I'll bring the information to the Daytona 500 and look to extend my win streak to a career-high-tying one.

A lot of new faces have come to NASCAR in the past few seasons, but I like the veterans this week. Dating back to 1992, every winner of the Daytona 500 was making at least his fifth career start in the race. In fact, since 1971, every winner of the 500 was making at least his third career start in the race…

Trivia break! Who is the only driver to win a Daytona 500 in his first career start in the race?

Anyway, 16 winners in a row sounds like a pretty good streak to me. So we'll eliminate the 26 drivers on the entry list of 54 who haven't made four previous starts in the Great American Race. Drivers such as Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin. But 28 are still in the running.

Winners in this race can come out of nowhere -- see Derrike Cope for an excellent example -- but you're probably better off taking a driver coming off a successful 2007 season. The past six winners of the Daytona 500 finished at least 14th in the points in the previous season. That rids us of 19 more drivers, leaving us with just nine.

The Bud Shootout was a lot of fun this year, but don't dismiss it as just an exhibition race, albeit an exhibition race with some serious coin on the line. The past four winners of the Daytona 500 not only made the Bud Shootout field but also finished in the top five of that race. The extra 70 laps of practice was good news for three of our remaining drivers, so we'll get rid of six more, including Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and defending champion Kevin Harvick.

Trivia break! The only driver to win the Daytona 500 in his first start in the race was Lee Petty in 1959. Although I have to admit some trickery: Petty was making his first Daytona 500 start only because that was the first Daytona 500. Since then, no Daytona 500 rookie has won the race.

Where did we leave off? That's right, three drivers left, and what three drivers! Perennial Daytona 500 favorites Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Stewart.

Let's take out Johnson with this nugget. Johnson might not have any pressure on him for the Gatorade Duel qualifying races, but that's probably not a good thing. You have to go back to 2000 to find the last time a Daytona 500 winner started from the front row; that year, Dale Jarrett was the second straight pole sitter to win the race.

Who else to eliminate? How about Stewart? Last year, he finished dead last, 43rd, in the Daytona 500. The past five Daytona 500 winners all finished the previous year's race, and all did so being no more than one lap down. I'm not saying Stewart should pack up his Camry and go home, but it's just not in my best interest to pick him this week.

So, come Sunday, give me the 24, and you can take the field. Look for Gordon to win his fourth Daytona 500 -- because the numbers don't lie.

Eliminator breakdown

  1. Dating back to 1992, no Daytona 500 winner had fewer than four prior Daytona 500 starts (26 drivers eliminated, 28 remaining).
    Drivers eliminated: A.J. Allmendinger, Stanton Barrett, Norm Benning, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Patrick Carpentier, Carl Edwards, Dario Franchitti, David Gilliland, Denny Hamlin, Sam Hornish Jr., Travis Kvapil, Carl Long, Eric McClure, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Ragan, David Reutimann, Scott Riggs, Boris Said, Regan Smith, Reed Sorenson, Martin Truex Jr., Brian Vickers, Jacques Villeneuve, J.J. Yeley

  2. The past six Daytona 500s have been won by drivers in the top 14 in the previous season's points (19 drivers eliminated, nine remaining).
    Drivers eliminated: John Andretti, Dave Blaney, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bill Elliott, Robby Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Kasey Kahne, Bobby Labonte, Sterling Marlin, Mark Martin, Jeremy Mayfield, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Joe Nemechek, Kyle Petty, Elliott Sadler, Ken Schrader, Kenny Wallace, Michael Waltrip

  3. The past four Daytona 500 winners finished in the top five of the same season's Budweiser Shootout (Six drivers eliminated, three remaining).
    Drivers eliminated: Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman

  4. No driver starting on the front row has won a Daytona 500 since 2000 (One driver eliminated, two remaining).
    Driver eliminated: Jimmie Johnson

  5. The past five Daytona 500 winners finished the previous year's race and were no more than one lap down (One driver eliminated, one remaining).
    Driver eliminated: Tony Stewart

    And your winner is: Jeff Gordon.

Matt Willis is a studio researcher at ESPN.