Kyle Busch frequently has called this the worst year of his motorsports career.
We have news for him: He's wrong. So, so wrong. His tune will change by the time he reads the next 1,271 or so words. There's some hardware in his future. And not just any hardware. Loopie hardware. And not just any Loopie hardware. The granddaddy of them all.
So paraphrasing Ralph Wiggum, who once succinctly said "Me fail English? That's unpossible," we say: "Congratulations Kyle, you've won the Stefan Kretschmann Lifetime Achievement Award. Worst year ever? That's unpossible."
A quick primer for those just tuning in: For the sixth consecutive season, the NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications team has pored over a season's worth of loop data and filtered out the top statistical performances of the 2012 season. After a painstaking review, a select committee created awards to recognize those drivers who numerically excelled this season. Those awards have evolved into arguably the most coveted prize in all of NASCAR. They are -- and this is -- The Loopies.
The envelopes please...
Loop Top Dogg: This award yearly goes to the driver who led the most loop data categories. Every week, NASCAR releases a season-to-date loop-data stats packet that charts 15 different statistical categories. This year's winner of the "Loop Top Dogg" led an astounding 13 of them.
Congratulations, Jimmie Johnson. Johnson's ranked first in the most important of all loop data stats, driver rating, with a gaudy 109.5. That was eight points higher than second-best Busch.
In all, Johnson led average running position, driver rating, fastest early in a run, fastest late in a run, fastest laps run, fastest on restarts, green flag speed, laps in top 15, laps led, miles led, percentage of laps run on the lead lap, speed by quarter (by the way, he also led each quarter overall) and speed in traffic.
Quantity of Quality Award: This award goes to the driver who led the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in quality passes, which are passes of cars in the top 15 while under green-flag conditions.
The winner, who will have to clear even more mantle space, is Brad Keselowski. He led the series by more than 200 quality passes and tallied 2,201 quality passes overall.
This is significant. These are the toughest cars -- with the most talented drivers -- to pass, and Keselowski did it more often than any other driver.
Considering his average starting position of 16.2, he had to do it often. Did you know: Keselowski is the first champion to fail to win a pole in his championship season since Matt Kenseth in 2003.
Most Improved Driver: Awards like these are usually given after taking into account a number of different success barometers. But this is the Loopies. And our nominating committee needs only one measure: Driver rating.
The driver with the biggest improvement in driver rating from 2011 to 2012, and winner of the coveted Loopie: Greg Biffle. Finishing fifth in 2012 after missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2011, Biffle ballooned his driver rating by 13.6 points over last season. Last year, he had an 85.9. This year: 99.5.
In all, six drivers enjoyed a double-digit improvement in driver rating from last season: Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Keselowski and Johnson.
Least Improved Driver: Not all Loopies are coveted. That's what makes these awards so unique and, dare we say, unrivaled.
Here's one of them. The driver with the biggest drop in driver rating wins this Loopie, and it goes to Carl Edwards -- with an asterisk. Edwards actually had the third-biggest drop, 16.8, from 101.0 in 2011 to 84.2 this season. But it was the biggest drop among drivers who didn't switch teams, and therefore, the committee made an executive decision to allow Edwards to take home this award.
In actuality, David Ragan suffered the biggest drop in driver rating. In 2011, Ragan had a driver rating of 78.3 for Roush Fenway Racing. For Front Row Motorsports this season, it dropped to 49.2. Kurt Busch, who went from Penske Racing to Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing, dropped 22.7 points.
Coffee's for Closers Award: Stealing a line from one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history, this "Glengarry Glen Ross"-themed award goes to the top "closer" in the series. The "closer" statistic measures the positions gained or lost in the last 10 percent of races. The top closer this season: Ryan Newman, who improved 68 total positions in the last 10 percent of races this season.
"He's Partially Sponsored by an Energy Drink, so Doesn't Need Coffee, Thankfully" Award (If by now you haven't realized that these awards are all in good fun -- and, well, ridiculous -- hopefully this award's name has sealed the deal): This one goes to one of the worst closers (again, not all of these awards are coveted). And the winner: Earnhardt. He lost 41 spots in the last 10 percent of races this year, among the worst of any driver. But with a sponsor like AMP Energy, he doesn't need coffee to keep him caffeinated. Nor do Kurt and Kyle Busch (Monster Energy) or Clint Bowyer (5-hour Energy), all of whom were in the red in the closer category.
Serenity Now Award: A happy driver is a successful driver, and that's certainly true with the winner of this award, Kurt Busch. When Busch announced his move to Furniture Row Racing during the Chase, he exuded calm and joyfulness. The results were immediate. A tale of the tape breakdown of Busch in his new No. 78 Furniture Row ride compared to his stats in No. 51 Phoenix Racing car:
In six races, he had more top-10s in the No. 78 (three) than he did in 29 races in the 51 (two).
Driver rating: 86.6 vs. 67.8
Average start: 17.7 vs. 22.7
Average finish: 14.3 vs. 25.0
Average running position: 14.6 vs. 22.2
Pass differential: +13 vs. 0
Laps in the top 15 percentage: 47.8 percent vs. 21.5 percent
Stefan Kretschmann Lifetime Achievement Award: It's the moment we've all been waiting for. A brief setup of this one: Stefan Kretschmann works for our partners at Stats, LLC in Chicago and is considered the godfather of loop data. His brain created the formula for driver rating and many of the other formulas that make loop data so interesting and invaluable. We started this award last season to honor a driver who statistically has been strong throughout the loop data era (2005-present). Johnson took home the inaugural Lifetime Achievement trophy.
This year's recipient is a man whose talent has landed him an unparalleled 20 perfect driver ratings of 150.0 throughout NASCAR's three national series. Congratulations to one of the all-time stat kings: Kyle Busch.
Here's a back-of-the-baseball-card view of an amazing career that shows little sign of teetering:
Among drivers with a minimum of 50 races, Busch ranks third in Sprint Cup driver rating (97.6); first in the Nationwide Series (113.8) and first in the Camping World Truck Series (119.3).
More perfect driver rating than any other driver.
15 in the Nationwide Series and five in the Camping World Truck Series.
Best career average running position in the Camping World Truck Series (6.683)
Most fastest laps run in the Nationwide Series (5,031)
Sprint Cup numbers: 4,328 fastest laps run (third-best); 59,961 laps in top 15 (third); average running position of 12.8 (fourth)
More top-fives in this year's Chase (seven) than any Chase driver.
Cracked the 100-point driver-rating threshold in the Sprint Cup Series for the third time. That's second to Johnson, who did it six times.