NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding A Pretty Wheel: What Makes a Driver?

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.

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

19 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
kb

Timely article given the overhyped attention a driver who for YEARS has done everything and anything to turn a fan off, regardless of the overhyped talent or not. And those who rabidly defend him without proper stats or Championships have him as the second coming of Christ (yes, I just typed that).

The fact the format of “The Chase” for over a decade, 10 races on a complete reset told us that was the Champion. Last year after multiple resets it told us that all 4 of the drivers in final race were “Championship” caliber, when in reality before the start of the race Joey Logano had 5 wins was the “old” Chase points leader and would have won the old “Chase” Championship by 7 points over Harvick at Homestead (despite Harvicks win). However, how can one really say what could have been on the old points system when Jeff Gordon was the “classic points” leader and Brad K. won the most races last season with 6 wins.

I guess my point is screwing around with what constitutes a “Champion” doesn’t help all of the above points Amy has made. But in my book, a jerk is a jerk. I have plenty of people in my world that are very successful, do I like them to socialize or praise, nope! I smile and keep my distance. Why should a NASCAR driver be any different? I will not cheer an idiot. Social situations have required maturity and grace, liking a NASCAR driver does not require that. Although it seems a couple of Sprint Cup drivers don’t subscribe to that mindset of grace and maturity.

Bill B

All good points but in the end the only thing that holds up in the history books are stats. Using non statistical arguments are pointless. You end up debating “how many angels can fit on the head of a pin”. Now that doesn’t mean that the person with the best numbers is without doubt the best, but if you are going to throw another’s name into the argument their stats better be very close.
Debating who is the best at anything is very subjective so that is why empirical data is the only thing that holds up when all is said and done.

Bill B

25 years from now no one is going to be looking at how funded or unfunded the team was when debating best drivers in NASCAR history. Unless of course NASCAR is trying to find a way to get someone in the HOF to serve their diversity ambitions.

kb

Not butting into you and Bill B.’s convo, but from my point of view when folks are spewing “the best ever, the best this and that”, numbers become very important, especially when you have todays (NOT YOU AMY) writers touting that. Writers today spew that line with a particular driver ignoring other drivers currently racing doing better than the touted driver. The bandwagon jumping without much of a original thought or truth telling is rampant. Almost seems like a script from NASCAR is sent out each week and is to be followed.

kb

You have officially jumped the shark into stupid, nasty, hateful troll country. You are a troll. And for the record Einstien, KB are my true initials, a fact that is much truer that “messengerfm”. You are so consumed with something (only you know) that you are in very desperate territory picking on legal initials. Talk about personality disorders. Run along troll….

MPM

FM doesn’t stand for “F–king Moron?” I’m so dissapointed. Which messenger of the Gods are we talking about, Hermes or Mercury. I’ll place my money on Mercury and that you live in the back of a Colony Park wagon up on cinderblocks near your favorite crack-house. From the name Mercury we get mercurial, which means erratic, volatile and unstable.

But anyhow,my buddy Bruce and I we decide to go into the haunted woods and we meet up with Hazy Davey and Killer Joe, who got the name because he looks like Jerry Lee Lewis not because he’d got a mean streak, which is good because he always carry’s a hatchet on his belt….

kb

lol, you said the obvious. like shooting fish in a barrel..too easy. I decided there is something ahem…”off” about this poster, so he/she can spew their ignorant trash, but I will not feed the troll. :) :)

Bill B

Man, lighten up Francis.

MPM

Yawn. FM you know the rules. The first one to say “Nazis” loses the fight. Now go rile up some Ricky Rudd fans about Atlanta way back when. I mean presumably there still are Ricky Rudd fans.

So me and my partner Bobby, we’re driving my 69 Chevy with a 396, fuelie heads in the trunk cause we couldn’t get them to fit a rat motor, and a Hurst on the floor. We’re the sort who will only run for the money with no strings attached, and we’re looking for all the action we can meet…only there’s no action on E-street tonight cause all the bad guys know us and they leave us alone. So Hazy Davey and Killer Joe are riding with us and we’re talking where we can go to meet some action and Bobby, well he’s like lets head out to Fire Lake. And I’m like Bobby nobody goes to Fire Lake any more since Uncle Joe wrecked his big there wheeler. Let’s head to Greasy Lake, and Bobby’s like “where’s that” and Hazy Davey says it about a mile down the dark side of Route 88 out beyond the Dynamo. And I sez maybe that’s where the big dogs are hanging tonight and we can meet some action, and Killer Joe suggest we pick up Janie but I’m like, dude she’s always putting her fingers in cakes. What’s the deal with that? She about got me arrested at the bakery. So Bobby chimes in and sez why don’t me go pick up Sandy and everyone says, like at the same time, “Ummmm Sandy.” I don’t know what it is about Sandy. You look at the individual parts and nothing works but the sum of the parts….I mean damn. And Sandy is always up for anything cause that’s just how she is, and I tell her we’re going out to meet some action and she pops in the car before I even invite her. And my 69 Chevy with a 396 isn’t really set up for five passengers, so Sandy’s sitting in my lap steering, Bobby is shifting and I’m working the pedals so if the Maximum Lawman pulls us over again he’s going to have a hard time deciding who is actually driving in the eyes of the law of the Great State of New Jersey. And Sandy asks where Janie is that night, and Bobby says we didn’t pick her up because of that finger in the cake thing, and Sandy says that’s it’s a lesbian deal and we’re all like “NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT” but Bobby he asked Sandy if Janie has ever had her fingers in her cake. And the rest of us are all like “DUDE!” So then it was Sandy, me, Davey and Joe out riding in my 69 Chevy with the 396 and Bobby’s walking.

MPM

Ronnie Von Zandt just called. He says Queen sucks.

JohnQ

I’ve never had a favorite driver. That said, I’ve always believed that top level drivers are like beauty pageant contestants. They are all exceptional, not much really separates the best from the worst. So really the best can be just a matter of taste. My opinion is that The best driver of all is the one you like the best for whatever reason. Really, they are just entertainers, it is not like they are driving ambulances!

GinaV24

Wow, I didn’t have a chance to read until now –

I agree with Amy’s and kb’s commentary about choosing a driver because of something that essentially “calls” to them or conversely, I don’t like particular drivers because they don’t. It may be behavior – yeah that’s a big deal to me, too, just like kb. Drivers that are rude and obnoxious, no matter how good of a driver they may be, they don’t appeal to me. Heck I cheered for Jimmy Spencer when he got off probation after punching Keebler in the mouth.

I also don’t get why people get mad at others for liking or not liking a particular driver.

MPM, well said! and kb, thanks for the reminder about not feeding the trolls.

kb

Good post… :)

Chris

I agree Gina and let me add that one thing I like about the commenters of this site is that for the most part everyone seems to respect one another regardless of who they may be a fan of and the comments are usually geared towards the article. Heck, even when a large majority of commenters don’t agree with a particular article/writer it still seems to stay pretty civil. I’ve been to a variety of race sites that the comments usually dissolve pretty quickly into insulting each other so I find this site to be pretty free of all that stuff and hopefully it stays that way. (By the way I just watched the end of qualifying and I see that Jeff is starting 23rd for Sunday)

JohnQ

Nice isn’t it.

Tim S.

Add 8th-grade level military history to your arsenal. What a well-rounded troll.

Mark Bornheimer

I have always been a big fan of the #48. We are from the same hometown and went to the same high school, and it’s pretty easy to root for someone that wins most of the time.
About 4 years ago I started keeping a close eye on the #18. What I have realized over the years is that Kyle is simply THE BEST DRIVER OF A STOCK CAR.
Do I think he has the greatest personality? Do I respect his cherry picking win record in the minor league series? Do I think he will win multiple championships? NO, but I will continue to root for him as most talented and entertaining DRIVER on the circuit.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch