Is The Title Up For Grabs?

sudden, some say, Kenseth’s title, which seemed all but a foregone conclusion three weeks ago, is very much in doubt. Well it makes for some interesting sound bites, but the fact of the matter is Kenseth is still very much in control and its going to require a meltdown of historic proportions for him to lose this championship. Mathematically Matt could still lose the top spot, but realistically it’s highly unlikely.

Yes indeed, Kenseth has had two rough weeks. Is that just a matter of the law of averages catching up to him or Kenseth and the team cracking under the pressure of the stretch drive to the title? I’d guess the former, though indeed it was shameful the backup car at Kansas was so poorly prepared rather than a duplicate of the primary car. One would guess that Jack Roush will be certain that the backup cars are in shape prior to the next six races.

The “magic number” being bandied about right now is 8. In other words if Matt Kenseth finishes eighth or better (or averages an eighth place finish in those races) he will be the champion. Kenseth’s average finish this season is 9.4 so he appears vulnerable statistically. (And remember that old saying about statistics, “There’s three sort of lies, damnable lies, and the official finishing order of the Kansas Busch race.) Of course in order for Kenseth to lose the title by averaging a finish worse than eighth in the final six races, Kevin Harvick has to win each of those six races and lead the most laps in each. Harvick is hot right now but if you’re betting the ranch he’ll win all six races left on the schedule I’d suggest you get a good shopping cart to haul your couture and you kiss your cows goodbye. (You have a donkey too? Well then you can kiss your…let’s not go there.)

Let’s take a more realistic scenario that Harvick leads at least one lap in each of the final six races and averages a fifth place finish, still an outstanding run to the Cup but not beyond the realm of possibility. (In the six race stretch from the July Pocono race to the Southern 500, inclusive, Harvick averaged a fourth place finish.) Where does Kenseth have to finish if that were to happen to prevail in the championship chase?

Harvick currently has 4023 points. A fifth place finish is worth is worth 155 points, so if Harvick averages a fifth place finish in six races that would be worth another 930 points, plus 30 more for leading a lap in each of those six races. His year end total would be 4983 points.

Kenseth currently has 4282 points. Based on the above scenario he’d need a minimum of 4984 points to beat Harvick. Thus he’s need to score 702 more points in the final six races. Even if Kenseth were not to lead a lap in any of those races, he needs to average 117 points per event to beat Harvick. Fifteenth place pays 118 points, so a fifteenth place average finish in the final six races would be more than enough to earn Kenseth a seat at the head table this December in New York. And Kenseth has only finished worse than fifteenth four times in thirty races run this season.

Harvick isn’t the hottest driver on the circuit right now. That honor would go to Ryan Newman. Again, let’s consider the impossible. Let’s say Newman is so hot right now that he wins the last six races and leads the most laps in each event. (Spike has indeed won three of the last five races.) Right now Newman has 3918 points. Six wins with most laps led bonuses would earn him another 1110 points so his season end total would be 5028. Still Kenseth would only have to average a twelfth place finish to still be champion even if he never leads another lap. Sorry, Newman. Thanks for playing. We have a lovely consolation gift for you…’s a Junior Johnson designed fuel cell!

Of course Harvick and Newman aren’t the only two outlaws gunning for the 17 team. Everybody from Michael Waltrip in eleventh on up still hasn’t been mathematically eliminated just yet and there’s some players on that list. Jeff Gordon has had an off season by his own lofty standards but he’s capable of going on a hot streak at any time. He’s won at four of the six tracks left on the schedule. Earnhardt Jr. is floundering as of late, but he's another driver who can rip off a string of top 5 finishes at any time. Jimmie Johnson has three wins this season, as many as the top three drivers in the points combined.

Let’s say that the bloom is off the rose for Kenseth, he will continue to struggle and average a 25th place finish in the last six races without ever leading a lap. What sort of average finish would his five closest pursuers have to finish to beat him?

Harvick: 10th (12th if he leads a lap in each race.)
Earnhardt Jr.: 8th (9th if he leads a lap in each race.)
Newman: 6th (Seventh if he leads a lap in each race.)
Johnson: 5th (Sixth if he leads a lap in each race)
Gordon: 4th (Fifth is he leads a lap in each race.)

And take into consideration if you look at Matt’s worst six finishes of the season and average them out, it amounts to a 24th place average. And those are his worst weekends of an entire season that seen him average a 9.4th place finish all year.

As a final consideration, let’s look at the Las Vegas odds on the Winston Cup championship. After all if the professional bookmakers screw up they don’t get yelled at by the editor like I do. They end up next to Springsteen’s dud machine stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey. Currently the odds on Kenseth being champion are 1:5, as in you have to wager five bucks to win six back. Oddly enough the next highest rated driver isn’t Harvick but Earnhardt Jr. at 5:1, as in if you bet a buck and he wins you get five bucks. (This is pari-mutuel betting and Earnhardt is an emotional favorite.) Other bookmakers are even more confident in Kenseth. I’ve seen him at 1:12 at another on-line betting source. Yet another source is no longer taking bets on the Cup title saying Kenseth becoming champion is inevitable.

So what’s all this hype about there suddenly being a title battle again? Blame it on the TV folks. For whatever reason NBC has decided their half of the season will focus on “the drive to the title.” And right now, if the only reason you’re watching races is to see who will be champion, there’s no sense tuning in. It’s unfortunate because I look at each race as a unique three and a half hour stand alone event that hopefully excites and entertains. If a fan, or a network, is only focusing on the points leader and the five drivers with an outside chance at the title they really aren’t broadcasting what’s going on on any given Sunday. Forget the hype folks. Engrave Matt Kenseth’s name on the championship trophy and let’s hope for six more entertaining races before the 2003 season rolls to a close.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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