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Six things we've learned so far

- dpoole@charlotteobserver.com
Thursday, Mar. 12, 2009

The season's first open weekend for Sprint Cup teams comes after just four races, but that doesn't mean we haven't already learned a little about 2009. Here's a six-pack of things at least worth thinking about:

1. Jimmie Johnson is 'struggling'

Jimmie Johnson has finished 31st, ninth, 24th and ninth in the first four races and is 13th in the standings so far. That's not awful, but it's certainly not up to the three-time defending Cup champion's standards.

But while it is true that Johnson has had some spectacular early season results in his career, it's also true that last year he was 13th after four races with 467 points. He has only 10 points less this year.

2. Clint Bowyer is underappreciated

The preseason tea leaves all pointed toward this being a transitional year for Clint Bowyer. After making the Chase the past two years, he moved from the No. 07 to a new No. 33 team at Richard Childress Racing with a crew chief new to Sprint Cup, Shane Wilson, and a new team.

Yet here we are four races in and Bowyer is second in points looking very, very solid. His worst finish was 19th at California on a day that all of the RCR cars struggled badly and he had the best day of the four drivers. His other finishes are fourth, second and sixth.

3. It IS how you start

People have caught on to how important a good start is in the Chase format, but right here is where you first read about that. We noticed it two years ago and the trends have not changed.

Of the 54 drivers who've made the Chase in its first five years, 50 have been in the top 20 after four races. Forty-four have been in the top 15. And 72 percent, 39 of 54, were in Chase position after four races (the top 10 in 2004-06 or the top 12 the past two years).

The four drivers in five years who have come from outside the top 20 after four races to make the Chase were Matt Kenseth and Jeremy Mayfield in 2005, Kevin Harvick in 2006 and Martin Truex Jr. in 2007.

4. Mark Martin is in a deep hole

Blown engines at California and Las Vegas and a blown tire at Atlanta have Mark Martin in some trouble. He's 35th in car owner points with just one race left before this year's standings start determining who has to get in on time.

A lot was expected out of Martin in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports ride. If he does turn things around and somehow comes from 34th in the driver standings to make the Chase, it would be historic.

Kenseth had 339 points after four races in 2005 and still came back to make the top 10. No driver has made the Chase with a lower four-race points tally. Martin has just 286 points so far this year.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. might not be that bad off

Dale Earnhardt Jr.' team has made mistakes and has had some bad luck, but NASCAR's loop data suggest the No. 88 car is running better than it's finishing.

Earnhardt is 24th in the standings after four races, but he's 15th in average running position and driver rating and, perhaps most interestingly, third in a statistic called "fastest late in a run." That ranks drivers based on their lap speeds in the last 25 percent of laps run since a pit stop. That means the No. 88 car has been pretty solid on long runs, which is something every team tries to shoot for.

6. There's (a little) more for everyone

There has been a lot of talk about there being more parity in Cup so far this season and the statistics bear that out - but only marginally.

Fourteen different drivers have had top-five finishes so far this year. That's the highest total in the past five seasons, but only by one over the 13 we had in 2008 and 2006. There have been 24 different drivers with top-10 finishes so far. In three of the past four years that number through four races has been 23. It was also 24 back in 2006.

On the other hand, if you take the average points total for each multicar team that has more than one car to make each of the season's first four races, things are still pretty tight:

Richard Childress Racing, 484.

Roush Fenway Racing, 480.

Hendrick Motorsports, 444.

Joe Gibbs Racing, 440. Penske Racing, 437.

Michael Waltrip Racing, 423.

Richard Petty Motorsports, 423.

Stewart-Haas Racing, 423.

Red Bull Racing, 367.

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, 349.

Yates Racing, 326.1

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