He squints through his helmet with steely eyes, planning his next move. When he makes it, it will be swift, sure, and final (he hopes). He’s only got one shot at it, and the wrong move will mean defeat at best, screaming brakes and torn sheet metal at worst. He’s ready…
That’s the picture most people get of a NASCAR driver in his car, ready to pounce on the next all-important position. It’s probably not that far from the truth. But not every driver is created equal, and not everyone will make that pass, or even get put in position to make it. So, what separates the best from the rest?
The answer is really very complex, and it might not be the same for every observer. Fans have particular favorites and their choices aren’t necessarily based solely on the way a driver races or what kind of numbers he puts up. One of the best parts of the sport is that every driver has fans, whether he’s got 50 wins or zero. But it’s a debate that’s always out there. So here’s my take on what makes the best drivers, the ones a team owner would choose to build a team around if he could select anyone at all.
First off, it’s hard to overlook numbers, particularly wins. A total of 184 drivers have victories at NASCAR’s highest level, and that in itself is an accomplishment they should be lauded for because it is deceptively hard to win one race, let alone a lot of them. There are a few drivers in every generation who can do better than that. Looking at today’s field of active, full-time drivers, 13 have 10 or more wins. Of those, nine have won at least 20 races. Three have won more than 40, a mark only 14 have ever crossed.
Championship titles are a bit difficult to decipher because the points system has changed drastically over the years. Chase titles seem a bit more shallow than a full-season championship to a great number of people; many put less value on Jimmie Johnson‘s six titles than on the multiple ones won by Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. It’s a lot harder to overlook or explain away Johnson’s win total though, because in almost 70 years, only seven drivers have more of them. While they might not be full-season titles, Chase champions still have those trophies, meaning they were able to put together a run nobody else could equal under the rules they were given. A lot of drivers haven’t been able to do that. A title, even one in the Chase, speaks to the ability to perform and perform brilliantly under immense pressure.
When you get done looking at the stats is when it gets tricky. Car control is a term that you hear bandied about, as a driver with above-average car control is fun to watch when he’s on the track. Some will say that car control is innate, but there are certain backgrounds that produce drivers with an excess amount. Whether that’s because the drivers who have it gravitate that way or because off-road and dirt racers have to learn it to survive is a matter of intense debate. But at the end of the day, a driver who can drive a car that’s dead sideways like he wants it or save a car that should, by all the laws of physics, be spinning is really something to watch. He’s going to take the car to the edge because he knows he can bring it back.
The recipe also calls for a bit of controlled aggression. This ingredient encompasses the hunger and the drive to win, but the best drivers know that driving “wide open” every lap rarely results in first place. It’s about knowing when to make a move, when to lay the bumper to someone and how to do it right. A driver who runs checkers or wreckers all race long, every week is fun to watch, no doubt. But he’s also going to lose some races he could have won had he driven smarter, and he’s going to make enemies on the track who can control his own destiny. Moves made in anger rarely work out. Overaggressive drivers are their own worst enemies most of the time. Some might point to Earnhardt as an exception; he was type of driver who sometimes crossed the line. When he did, he was often a winner. When he didn’t, he was a chess player of the highest caliber.
On the flip side, a driver who’s not quite aggressive enough is also going to give a few away. There’s a difference between a dirty wreck and using the old chrome horn when needed. Intentionally wrecking a driver isn’t OK; moving one for position late in the race is sometimes necessary and not a dirty move if it’s done right. There are some very good drivers who drive squeaky clean, but you have to wonder what their win totals would look like had they taken a few more opportunities to put the win above all else.
In today’s NASCAR, where the competition is so tight, the driver’s ability to communicate with his team is critical. It’s not enough to relay that the car is too loose or too tight; the driver who can tell the crew chief where he thinks the issue is coming from will stand out. A driver who remembers past races, what he did and how his team fixed handling is invaluable. The crew chief can only take a home run swing at a problem if the driver doesn’t describe it well. A driver who lets frustration take over often has problems with communication and it seldom helps anything. It happens to most at times, but if a driver lets his emotions drive his race on a regular basis, it’s unlikely he’ll have the success he otherwise might.
There’s also a place for teamwork in the sport. I’m not talking about letting a teammate win or bringing out an opportune caution here, but rather about knowing when working together is more beneficial than working at odds. That could be concerning holding up the leader for a few moments or about working together in the draft, but a good teammate knows when it’s appropriate and necessary… and will pay back a favor later.
Then there’s raw talent, that innate ability some seem to be born with. It’s very hard to quantify most of these qualities, but the drivers with the underlying talent are the ones who seem to instinctively seem to know where to go on the track and how to make exactly the right move at the right time. At the Cup level, every driver is talented (and lack of money does not equal a lack of talent, make no mistake). But even at the top, some drivers have the combination of instinct, reaction time, and smoothness behind the wheel that will take them a few steps beyond.
Finally, many fans choose their favorite drivers based on personality. While being a nice guy isn’t going to win races, it may win respect on the track, and that goes a long way in a 500-mile event. Drivers race others the way they’re raced by other drivers. Sponsors also pay attention here, so while personality will never trump talent on the track, it can mean the difference in a top ride and a not-so-top one.
When all is said and done, everyone has a different opinion on who the best drivers are and on what makes a good one. That spirited debate is what makes the sport so great to watch each week, a diverse group of fans supporting drivers for a number of different reasons.