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From the Marbles

Offseason Hot/Not: Tony Stewart, who? NASCAR’s real closer was AJ Allmendinger

Geoffrey Miller
From The Marbles

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We know that Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards produced the closest point standings finish NASCAR will ever see (because, well, it was a tie) and we know that Kurt (hey, he's looking for a job!) and Kyle Busch produced the two worst efforts of the Chase.

But guess who was more effective late in the race than any of those Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders? AJ-freaking-Allmendinger, that's who. What surreal NASCAR world is? Oh, just the world of NASCAR's intuitive loop data — where crazy stats can tell you a whole lot or very little about many a driver's season.

HOT: Yeah, you read that right: A J Allmendginer — the former open-wheeler turned NASCAR driver currently piloting Richard Petty Motorsports' iconic No. 43 — was the Sprint Cup Series' tour de force while the final laps came into view this season.

The Dinger picked up a masterful 134 positions in the last 10 percent of the season's 36 races, for an average of 3.7 spots per race. With NASCAR's point system basically equaling a point per position, Allmendinger gained 134 points thanks to his late-race heroics — or the difference between 15th and 24th in the final standings. Strangely (or not) Allmendinger's teammate Marcos Ambrose was second-best with 85 late-race passes. {ysp:more}

The rest of the Closer Top-10 goes like this: Kevin Harvick (+78), Edwards (+76), Brian Vickers (+63), David Gilliland (+53), Kasey Kahne (+48), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (+32), Travis Kvapil (+26) and Matt Kenseth (+23).

Being a great finisher, however, wasn't a barometer of success — even if it was maddening to watch for fans of drivers who were beaten to the line more often than not. Jeff Gordon ranked 70th of all 2011 Cup drivers with 26 lost spots, and still beat out fellow Chasers Tony Stewart (-27), Brad Keselowski (-34), Ryan Newman (-38), Denny Hamlin (-70), Kyle Busch (-74) and Kurt Busch (-84).

Perhaps, just perhaps, such luck inspired Kurt's Homestead meltdown?

NOT: Kyle Busch's consistency continues to be his biggest downfall in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. I say that because he was nothing short of damn fast all season.

Busch was the fastest car early in a run (first 25 percent of a run after pit stops) and the fastest car late in a run. He also averaged the fastest green-flag speed (over Johnson and Edwards), the most laps in the top 15 (79.6 percent of all laps, 5 percent more than Edwards) and had the most laps led (1,455 total, topping Johnson's 1,115).

Yet Busch, even before his Texas suspension, had dropped to 7th in the Chase and 57 points out of the lead.

NEUTRAL: Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the Chase for the first time since forever (also known as 2008) but didn't win a race and proved to be more of an also-ran for much of the year. However disappointing that was, the season had all of the hallmarks of him driving in a Steve Letarte-led operation.

Earnhardt completed 90.31 percent of his season on the lead lap, third only to Gordon and Harvick. But Earnhardt led only 52 laps this season, good for 12th-best among Chase drivers. The 11th-most laps led among Chase drivers? Brad Keselowski's 298. He won three times.

Remember it was Letarte who led Jeff Gordon to a NASCAR-record 30 top-10 finishes in 2007 — and not a championship.

HOT: Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. didn't score Chase berths this season, but it wasn't for a lack of trying when the green flag waved. Seventh and eighth fastest respectively on restarts, Kahne and Truex were the only non-Chasers above 13th.

HOT: It's probably of no surprise that Jimmie Johnson actually had a pretty good year trying to defend his five consecutive championships streak. Heck, aside from his wreck of over-aggression at Charlotte and tough Talladega finish, his Chase was shaping up in very good fashion.

Johnson had the fourth-best average running position in the Chase (11.4) and had the highest percentage of fastest laps run. He even led the second-most amount of laps among Chasers, behind only Tony Stewart.

Yet Johnson finished sixth, 99 points back. Another cat doomed by a lack of consistency.

How about some quick "makes you hmmm"stats? Let's go:

HOT: Juan Pablo Montoya completed the most total laps this year (10602) and the most total miles (14,165.25). Interestingly, Tony Stewart completed just 1.89 miles less than Montoya in 2011 while completing 23 fewer laps. Chalk that up, I'm told, to varying track sizes. It's a scientific fact.

NOT: Looking for some hard statistics about why Michael Waltrip Racing replaced David Reutimann next year? Reutimann's average finish dropped year-to-year over four spots to 22.3 in 2011, and he had seven fewer lead-lap finishes than in 2010.

HOT: Three drivers finished every race this season, including Montoya, Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman. Thirty drivers finished at least 30 races this year on track. Attrition? You have no place in today's NASCAR.

NEUTRAL: Trevor Bayne made 51 percent of his Sprint Cup earnings in 2011 by winning the Daytona 500. He raced 16 more times. If anyone is offering, I'll gladly pitch your product and push Jeff Gordon all day in the 2012 Daytona 500 — just like Mr. Bayne.

HOT: 31 lead-lap finishes was the most by any driver this season, a mark held by — who else — Stewart and Edwards. Meanwhile, Brian Vickers and Jamie McMurray each had 17 to easily illustrate the gulf between contenders and those who are not.

HOT: Perennial terrible qualifier Matt Kenseth tied for the most poles this season with three. Five drivers scored that number, meaning 2011 was the first season since 1997 that a single driver didn't have at least four poles in a season. Ryan Newman, what happened?

NEUTRAL: Likewise, Tony Stewart's five (all in the Chase!) wins led all Sprint Cup drivers this year. Not since 2002 (when Matt Kenseth had a season-high five wins) had NASCAR had a season without a six-or-more race winner.

With those stats, and the tied finish for the sport's top achievement, you could say parity and consistency held some pretty big esteem in 2011. That's good, because they helped produce noticeably-increased TV ratings over the 2010 numbers. Who knew fans hated someone stinking up the show with dominance?

Oh, everyone? You don't say...

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