Consistency can be a cruel mistress.
On the one hand, you have Mark Martin, nicknamed Mr. Consistency for his steady performance over a healthy 25+-year career. Martin wasn’t always the winner, but he was near the top constantly, gaining the respect of fans, drivers and owners for simply being there at the finish almost all the time and at a better clip than the competition.
The flip side is a bit drastic but not uncommon. Sure, maybe a racer gets around the same finish every race, becoming the kind of guy or gal that you know, with little doubt, that three facts are no-brainers: death, taxes and their checkered flag result. But when that performance is 36th every week, is anyone really better off, the driver included? Consistency can be beneficial, but it can also harm.
Such is the case of Austin Dillon in 2014.
Not long ago, I considered the case of Dillon and Kyle Larson, two freshmen going at it for the Rookie of The Year title in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. It was noted that Dillon, despite being labeled a shoo-in before the season began by many, had been eclipsed by his competition over at Chip Ganassi Racing and that he was nothing more than second rate at this point.
Even last week, I took a 15-minute guest spot on Sirius XM NASCAR’s Press Pass, during which I claimed that Larson was far more likely to make the Chase, sitting 10th in points, while Dillon and the No. 3 team would end up on the outside looking in come Richmond.
But then a stat caught my eye, something that can’t be ignored. Something in which Dillon is leading nearly all Cup regulars in 2014: laps completed.
It’s not a number we consider often. Who cares, after all, if a driver finished on the lead lap or not — did he or she win the race? Finish in the top 10? If not, then on a race-to-race basis, what’s the big deal?
But completing as many laps as possible can’t be underestimated, either, and it’s something the Richard Childress Racing driver has seemingly taken to heart. Out of 4,517 laps completed in the Cup Series this season, Dillon has driven 4,509 (99.8 percent), a number eclipsed by no one and tied only by six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. That means, while Dillon has lagged behind drivers like Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and even rookie rival Larson, he’s been able to finish more laps than any of them, one of a dwindling club of drivers who have been running at the finish of every race.
Supporting this notion is that despite just one top-10 finish for Dillon thus far, points-wise he is on the same pace as his RCR teammates. Ryan Newman is in 10th, just 26 markers ahead of Dillon, while Paul Menard and his seven top 10s actually trails Dillon by five points and two positions in the standings.
So while it’s easy to call a guy like Larson consistent — as noted last week, his average start and finish are nearly identical, remaining so despite his fifth-place run at Pocono last week — those flashy performances are why folks are paying him more mind. By comparison, Dillon has played it cool. He’s only had four finishes outside the top 20 and none in the 30s or 40s, generally settling in somewhere around 15th place.
But is Dillon’s consistency enough? Maybe not to the usual NASCAR consumer, who measures success in wins and good runs — which is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it out of line. Much like the driver who ran consistently, but was still finishing 36th every week, is there really that much to write home about here? Especially when it comes to a competitor, in top-tier equipment who notched a top-10 run to start the year but hasn’t reached that plateau since?
In Dillon’s case, yes. It’s important to remember his rookie status, meaning that laps, laps and laps — track time — are the most important training tools for him right now. Maybe he’s not setting the racing world on fire, like some expected or hoped, but he’s not the standard image of a first-timer either, someone who shows flashes of competence but mostly can’t get out of his or her own way.
It’s a stat that allows Dillon to stand out above his peers as someone to legitimately look at as making quiet — but effective — strides. Rather than falling out early at some of these tracks, thereby losing ample time to add to his experience, Dillon will visit many speedways a second time already a little more seasoned, which could make a world of difference.
It could even get him into the Chase without a win, something he’s on the cusp of doing now and could still be doing come September. Should other drivers fall by the wayside, Dillon’s ability to stay in the conversation — or right outside it — could come in handy.
And if he can slowly turn those 15th-place runs into 10th place, then 10th into fifth and — well, you get the picture — watch out.
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