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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Greatness is Made of Many Things

The 25 finalists for five spots in the inaugural calls in the NASCAR Hall of Fame were released this week and I don’t envy anyone who has to narrow that list down. It did start me thinking, though, about what really makes a stock car driver great.

At this level, they’re all good. They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t. For all fans say about a particular driver being “bad” or “mediocre,” the fact is that to simply get to any of NASCAR’s top divisions, you’re good. But what separates the really great drivers from the masses today? This is how I break it down:

1. Talent

Obviously, God-given talent plays a huge role here. But talent is elusive and intangible. What really makes talent?

Part of it is pure reflex – drivers need to be able to react quickly. We’ve all seen a multi-car pileup where one guy skates through unscathed. Part of that is luck, to be sure, and part is the spotter’s skill (more on that later), but a lot of it is reaction time. Simply put, if you can see trouble and react a split second earlier than the next guy, you have a huge advantage. To a certain extent, reaction time can be honed and improved, but some drivers just have that innate ability to react quickly.

I’m a firm believer that there are intangibles at work as well. Some people, for some reason, are just good at some things. Ironically, it was not being on the receiving end of this innate skill that made me sit and think about this column. I am a competitive equestrian, and while I’m a good rider, I don’t have that inborn something that makes the sport come easily. That doesn’t mean I don’t win, but I also have to work harder – and often settle for second. It isn’t lack of work or focus, but I can sense something I lack. And I can see it on the racetrack as well. Look at Tony Stewart sometime, especially while you’re at the track in person. Just watch him drive, and you’ll see it.

Strictly speaking, some guys are just born with something that gives them something extra, whether it’s reaction time, the ability to reason thoroughly and quickly, feeling a racecar’s tendencies, intense focus, or something else, the fact is, some drivers just have this.

But talent isn’t everything – there are some very talented and totally winless drivers in the sport. Those who have watched Reed Sorenson throughout his career, comment on his immense talent, but the results haven’t shown it. It’s an interesting conundrum, and it speaks to there being other factors in the game.

2. Communication

It doesn’t matter if a driver can feel the racecar if he cannot effectively communicate that feel to his team so that they can make the car better. If you wonder why Jimmie Johnson wins as much as he does, credit a chunk of that success to his ability to tell his team exactly how the car is handling and reacting to his driving style. He’s focused on the car all the time, and you rarely hear him lose his cool and give irrelevant information about his car. The greatest crew chief in the world can’t fix a car if he doesn’t know what to fix, and the most talented driver will fade in every race if he can’t help his team keep up with the car as it changes.

3. Overcoming Adversity

It’s easy to get frustrated with a bad situation, but letting it get away from you does nothing but assure that things won’t improve. On the other hand, the ability to see the bigger picture will often yield better results. Again, the gold standard here is Johnson, who has come back from some situations that have buried other teams to win or finish in the top five. This area is also why, right now, Kyle Busch isn’t winning titles – he lets things get under his skin, and that ultimately affects his driving and communication. It’s not always easy to take a step back and rethink a few laps or an entire race, but the very best can take it in stride.

4. Trust

It’s not easy to drive blind at nearly 200 mph, but today’s drivers are almost in that spot. Between full-faced helmets, elongated headrests and the car’s wing, what a driver can see around him is very limited. Enter the spotter, the driver’s “eyes in the sky,” whose job it is to let the driver know when he is clear of other cars and free to move up or down on the track. The spotter has to have immense focus. But the driver needs to trust that person implicitly. And for someone who makes their living as a bit of a control freak, that doesn’t always come as easily as it sounds. When drivers second-guess a spotter, or don’t wait for his word, bad things happen. Complete trust in spotter or crew chief can make the difference between winning championships or finishing second.

5. Numbers

In the end, all of the above give a driver what it takes to win. But the driver has to parley talent into numbers in order to be considered among the sport’s greats. While statistics are easy to be manipulate in some ways, taken as a whole, they are hard to argue with. Do drivers get lucky? Sure, they do, and the win column on their stats page might be padded by a race or two – but to put up really big numbers takes something special. Time also needs to be taken into consideration-did a driver put up mind-boggling numbers in five years or 20?

Numbers are a delicate balance. We talked a while ago in Mirror Driving about Mark Martin’s numbers and whether they made Martin a Hall-of-Fame candidate. His numbers are impressive, to be sure – 38 wins, 247 top-five finishes, 404 top 10s. But here is where numbers can be made to deceive: Johnson has 42 wins, four more than Martin, but falls far short in top-five (108) and top-10 (167) finishes. He falls short of Martin’s career numbers – so it would be easy to say, based on numbers alone, that Martin is the better driver. What is left out here is that Martin’s career top five total is five races more than Johnson’s career race total, an omission that skews the facts.

So, numbers, in some ways the ultimate measure of performance, cannot be looked at alone, and they must be compared with a practiced, informed eye. In the end, numbers determine greatness, at least to a certain extent, because without everything listed above, the numbers simply will not be there in a driver’s support.

In the end, what separates the good drivers from the truly great ones boils down to personal interpretation – of talent, of numbers and of the times in which that driver raced. And that’s the best part. It would be a boring world if we all thought the same guy was the best. So, fans, make your case for your driver proudly. In the end, you determine his greatness.