Ahh, final practice. The much bally-hooed and over-hyped true “shakedown session,” of sorts, in NASCAR. Looking at the final practice charts for the 2011 season to date, only three of the fastest cars in final practice have gone on to win the actual race in the first 30 races. No, that is not a misprint, dear readers. Only three races out of 30 (that’s ten percent of NASCAR events for those who are good with math) has the fastest car in final practice actually gone on to win the race. With stats like this, it makes the infamous Allen Iverson quote “We’re talking about… practice. Not a game, not a game. We talking about practice” ring more true than ever. That is, at least in the world of NASCAR.
To recap, final practice has had guys such as David Stremme, Brian Vickers, Mark Martin, and Clint Bowyer, none of whom have won a single race in 2011, topping the speed charts. Stremme has been mostly start & parking his No. 30 Inception Motorsports Chevrolet for much of the season. Vickers and Martin have largely been non-factors come race-time in 2011, and up until recent weeks, Clint Bowyer was also persona non grata for much of the season. Only Kyle Busch at Kentucky, Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen, and Jeff Gordon at Atlanta have topped the final practice charts and gone on to win the race.
This is not intended to say that practice in NASCAR means about as much as Floyd Mayweather, Jr.’s undefeated record in boxing. Final practice does serve its purpose. Often, those speed charts can be quite deceiving as many of the top-tier teams have their cars geared for race trim while the lower-end operations of NASCAR focus more on qualifying, which equals short-term speed, but usually those cars are out of the race after 30 to 45 laps. The top teams, for the most part, tend not to over-play their metaphorical “poker hand” during these sessions. There’s always just a little bit extra left on the table come race day.
In some race weekends, final practice is also a determining factor in the qualifying order for NASCAR teams, to add a new wrinkle of sorts to the qualifying procedure. But, for example, when color commentators express shock and disbelief at a car that was fast in final practice being nowhere near the front like Clint Bowyer last week, when commentators repeatedly remarked they could not believe he hadn’t been a factor in the race, perhaps they need to take a good, hard look at the numbers and see that final practice speeds no longer necessarily mean an automatic win on Sunday (or Saturday night).
Another purpose for final practice, that has grown more and more in importance as this season has dragged on, is to see how far teams can go on a tank of fuel. With nine of the 30 races on the schedule having come down to fuel mileage, these drivers and crew chiefs have been using these sessions to calculate how far the cars can go on a full load of fuel. Nowadays, with those types of races fast becoming the norm, it’s more crucial than ever to have a bit more fuel than other drivers have left in their tanks.
But at the end of the day, much like with the current points system, it’s consistency, not hell-on-wheels, pedal to the metal driving that equals the necessary speed to win at the top levels of NASCAR. While practice does serve its purpose in the “new NASCAR,” maybe fans and analysts of the sport should take a good look at facts and not automatically assume that because, let’s say for example, J.J. Yeley was the fastest car in practice that he should automatically be pencilled in as the race favorite. While the old saying is “practice makes perfect”, at least in NASCAR it should be “practice does not make perfect.”
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