This week’s question is racing’s version of “the chicken or the egg” question: does the car matter more than the driver or does the driver make a bigger difference than the car?
Motor Over Mojo
There’s no doubt that both matter, but it’s clear that the machine makes a bigger contribution than the man (or woman) does.
NASCAR is peppered with recent examples of situations where it clearly mattered more to be in a strong car.
Look at Ross Chastain, for example. He made 129 starts in the NASCAR XFINITY Series in underfunded equipment. He had no wins, no pole positions and only three top-five finishes. Furthermore, all three top fives were scored at Iowa Speedway in races without the participation of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers.
This year, he got a three-race shot in the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 XFINITY ride. In the first race at Darlington Raceway, he won the pole, led the most laps and may have won had he not been involved in a late crash with Kevin Harvick. His next race in the car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway resulted in his first career NASCAR XFINITY Series win. The third race was a second-place run — his fifth career top-five finish — and it came at Richmond Raceway, a track where he had previously never finished higher than 15th.
So did Chastain suddenly figure out how to properly drive an XFINITY Series racecar? Was there some magic secret that he unlocked just prior to climbing aboard a car put together by a multimillion dollar operation?
Not a chance. He simply climbed into a car that was equal to those fielded by the regular front runners in that division. He’s a perfectly capable driver, but there’s no way that he was ever going to land in Victory Lane without an equally capable car.
There are other examples as well. Ryan Preece essentially did the exact same thing as Chastain. He made over 30 starts in cars fielded by low-budget operations, and he never scored a single top-five finish in an XFINITY car. Then, Preece landed a two-race deal to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing. Suddenly, he scored a runner-up finish and followed it up by winning from the pole in his second race.
The results were impressive, but Preece is an accomplished modified driver capable of building and winning in his own cars. His ability is unquestionable, so why couldn’t he win a race before hopping into a Gibbs Toyota?
Simply put, his previous cars weren’t as good as that Gibbs Toyota.
Cars built by teams like Gibbs, Team Penske, Ganassi and other top organizations consistently run at the top of the charts regardless of who is behind the wheel. It’s remarkably more noticeable in the XFINITY Series where cars rotate drivers throughout the year with minimal change in performance or results, but it holds true at all levels of the sport.
The underfunded teams look forward to restrictor plate races for the simple reason that the rules equalize the playing field in a way that no driver change can.
A talented driver can only compensate for so much. The best way I can summarize it is that a subpar driver in a fast car will only be limited by their own ability. A good driver in a lesser car will always be limited by their equipment. –Frank Velat
The Car Doesn’t Drive Itself
Having a good car is definitely important in NASCAR, but I’d rather have a great driver any day.
A great driver can take a bad car and turn it into a good race. A bad driver won’t have great finishes no matter how great the car is.
Frank mentioned Ross Chastain’s rise to winning. Yes, the Ganassi No. 42 is a much better car than car than anything JD Motorsports brings to the track. But Chastain is also a great driver who gets more out of his equipment than most.
In Chastain’s races with JDM this year, he has an average finish of 16.1. His teammates Garrett Smithley and Vinnie Miller (who recently left the team) have average finishes of 21.9 and 28.5. Essentially, Chastain is taking the same equipment as the other two cars and getting five to 12 more spots out of it every week.
So while Ganassi gave Chastain the extra speed to win, he was already great without it. Had he never stepped into the No. 42, he still would have easily qualified for the XFINITY playoffs on points.
There are drivers in far superior equipment than Chastain who you cannot say the same for. JR Motorsports has better cars than JDM, but Chastain and others in underfunded equipment outrun Michael Annett on a weekly basis. Chastain has a top five and six top 10s in JDM equipment this year, while Annett has no top fives and only two top 10s. Annett’s average finish is a 19.1, meaning Chastain outruns him by three spots on average with cheaper equipment.
If great equipment was the be-all and end-all, then the talent of Chastain and Annett wouldn’t matter — Chastain wouldn’t be in the same league as Annett, as his No. 5 would be so much faster.
The same argument holds true in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Yes, Stewart-Haas Racing is a powerhouse right now, but a huge part of that is they have four ultra-talented drivers.
If it was all in the car, then Danica Patrick would’ve been winning when she was there. Aric Almirola has since gotten in the No. 10 and not only won one race, but been close to winning several races. Was Patrick ever close to winning any races?
That’s not a completely fair comparison, as what was Patrick’s team is now working at the No. 41 with Kurt Busch. Well, that comparison emphasizes the driver even more. Busch, a future Hall of Famer, has double the top fives that Almirola has this season and more top 10s in a car that didn’t score any top fives last year.
Almirola’s surge in performance this season is due to driving better equipment than what he had at Richard Petty Motorsports, but his results at Petty were still better than Patrick’s in superior SHR equipment. From 2013 to 2017, Almirola had a better average finish than Patrick in four out of those five seasons. He had one win and nine top fives in that span. Patrick had zero of both.
If equipment mattered more than the driver, then Patrick should’ve lapped Almirola every race of his Petty tenure.
The competition gap is so close in today’s NASCAR, that an elite driver is more important now than ever. Gone are the days where Richard Petty or Jeff Gordon have cars so good they can lap the field. The difference now is in the driver. -Michael Massie
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