Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: Better to Be Consistent, Lucky or Both?

Much of the talk surrounding this weekend’s finale at Homestead has been about the consistency of Carl Edwards.

His position atop-o’-the-points (albeit by only three) has come about because of his steady march through the 2011 schedule. The fact that Edwards won only once this year (at Las Vegas back in March), yet has been at-or-near the points lead for most of the season speaks volumes about the No. 99 team, the skill of Edwards and the consistency they’ve exhibited.

Other drivers and teams have shown evidence of consistency both before and during the Chase (the efforts of Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose and AJ Allmendinger come to mind, in addition to the postseason dominance of Tony Stewart) but it’s been the heavy foot, steady hand and clear head of Edwards that puts us where we are today.

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Consistency is the way to win championships, even when the new points structure has been manipulated to try and work against playing it safe. Winning races is supposed to be the ideal, but being consistent is the proven way to snag the title.

There’s something good to be said about consistency. Fear of the unknown is always unsettling, even if we’d like to think that we’re brave about such things. Consistency, on the other hand, is safe and sure; no surprises means there should be no surprises.

We can rest assured in the consistency of tradition and routine, which means we can focus our anxieties on other issues. I’m less likely to worry about my day if I know that my meals, my clothing and my responsibilities will be similar to those I’ve experienced previously. Eliminate the guesswork, and you’ve eliminated the stress.

Take meals, for example. While many people enjoy trying new and often exotic menu items, there’s an even larger bunch of us who feel best about the tried-and-true. In our house, breakfast is pretty much the same ol’, same ol’ every morning. So is lunch, which varies only slightly from day-to-day, especially if we’re out of peanut butter.

Supper involves typically one of four-or-five “regular” options and even dining out is limited by both time and availability (life in a tiny village means fewer choices of fewer restaurants).

Consistency can be even easier if children are involved. Some kids are content with eating the same foods for every meal. As long as some kind of healthy option is part of the menu (and no, jelly beans don’t count as a vegetable), staying true to a predictable course is no big deal. We know what we know because we know it; to be consistent is to be secure in your actions and decisions. When things remain the same, they exchange uncertainty for dependability.

Want proof that consistency is a good thing? Just consider the 2011 Sprint Cup season enjoyed by Edwards and his Roush Fenway/Aflac team. Even with all of NASCAR’s changes regarding how points were awarded this year – tightening the points system to a level where differences in finishing positions equated to single-point increments between drivers – the Sprint Cup championship is winding down to a final race that will settle the three-point gap between Edwards’ sNo. 99 Ford and Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet.

Consistency will be called upon one last time come Sunday afternoon at Homestead.

During the “modern”/corporate sponsorship era, NASCAR has tried to make itself all about consistency. Showing up means having being in contention. There was a time when teams would pick-and-choose the events they entered, and opt out of the ones they felt offered less opportunity. The catch there was that if a team failed to enter a race, the promoters of said race took a chance at missing out on the absent driver’s fanbase.

This is a reason why race promoters during automobile racing’s early years used to put up appearance money. When a recognized, “household” name like Tommy Milton, Bob Burman, Ralph De Palma or Barney Oldfield didn’t enter an event, there was a very good chance that their absence would be felt at the ticket office.

Race promoters wanted to guarantee that the big names would run in their big races – big names that would put on a good show and (more importantly) draw a good audience. Attracting top-notch talent has always been essential in racing and setting up your points system so as to reward overall consistency (as in, showing up to race each and every week) has been the best way to make sure your starting grid is always studded with stars.

NASCAR has ripped a page from this turn-of-the 20th-century playbook and its efforts to create a high-anxiety season finale have seemingly paid off very nicely.

Putting an emphasis on overall consistency, however, hasn’t always been the key to NASCAR’s success. In past years, when the Cup championship was won on the merits of a single-win performance by a driver (think of the late Benny Parsons in 1973 and Matt Kenseth – 30 years later – in 2003), the outcry from NASCAR Nation was “The sport’s broken; you’d better fix it!”

How dare a driver stink up the season by winning one race, hanging out close to the front in a whole bunch of others and walk away with the series’ championship; such “stick-to-itiveness” was un-American and it made for boring racing, to boot.

Consider the 1973 Winston Cup season, which consisted of 28 events. Parsons won the championship after scoring one win (at Bristol), 15 top fives, 21 top 10s and achieving an average finishing position of 10.1 for his 28 starts. On the other hand, David Pearson won 11 of his 18 Cup starts that year en route to an average finishing position of 7.8 – good enough for 13th place in the standings?

Despite being more successful by way of scoring more victories, Pearson came up short for the overall season; Pearson made 10 fewer starts than Parsons, won over 60% of them and wound up 12 positions in points behind the champion. How can this happen? It’s possible when consistency over the long haul is given more credibility than the accumulation of wins.

Such was also the situation in 2003 (a 36-race season), when Kenseth scored one win (at Las Vegas, like his current teammate Edwards), 11 top fives, 25 top 10s and had an average finishing position of 10.2. By comparison, Ryan Newman won eight races, scored 17 top fives, 22 top 10s and yet could finish (on average) no better than 13.9 – good enough for sixth place in points for the year.

While a single-win champion doesn’t automatically result in a restructuring of the points system, having such overall consistency lead to a title has led to a rethinking of NASCAR’s priorities. Is it better for the sanctioning body to acknowledge (and properly reward) hard-charging winners or is it more appropriate to commemorate consistency over the 36-race marathon between Daytona and Homestead?

In order to address this question, NASCAR had to address its basic philosophy. Was the ideology behind NASCAR based on winning races, or merely surviving them? Consistency might be “the foundation of virtue,” as British statesman Sir Francis Bacon put it, but it’s also – in the words of the Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde – “the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

The simplest way to fix the problem was to re-invent the wheel; NASCAR would still give out points to race teams, but winning the title would require a little more gumption. First, in 1975, NASCAR went with Bob Latford’s “new-and-improved” points system.

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When that seemed to grow stale (as in: we can hang up the Cup title alongside our Halloween costumes, since we’re done with both by the end of October), along came Brian France’s “Chase for the Championship” format, which was first utilized in 2004.

When that style of racing was mixed with Latford’s 1975 points formula, there was more jeering than cheering as “staying the course” through attention to consistency meant staying atop the Cup standings indefinitely (as Rick Hendrick, Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s team demonstrated over five consecutive years). While consistency was a good way to win championships, it was a lousy way to attract fans, both at the track and on television.

The even-newer-and-even-more-improved points system introduced this season changed all that. Not only did NASCAR’s new system turn positions on the track into points toward the title, but the new format required drivers to select a series in which to run for a championship.

The rationale here was two-fold; while the new points system forced drivers to finish up front as often as possible, it also insured that drivers had to put their competitive eggs in one series’ basket; “carpetbagging” was relegated, once again, to history, with the emphasis being placed on staying consistent in both actions and intentions.

But how can we define or explain this thing called consistency? To some, it’s the “safety in certainty” idea mentioned earlier that gives us a sense of confidence (if I know that breakfast today will be a bowl of Cheerios, just like it was last year, last month, last week and yesterday, I can rest easy in the knowledge that I’ll face no surprises when I come to the table this morning).

To others, consistency is seen as a hindrance, an obstacle that impedes our ability to adapt to changes and achieve success through taking risks. The irony of consistency in automobile racing is that it is a sport often interpreted through its varied and often-unpredictable nature: the uncertainty of man and machine, where thousands of moving parts are affected by the efforts of numerous people and controlled in volatile environments by a human being who’s capable of making both wise and foolish decisions.

To take this kind of endeavor and strive for consistency seems unrealistic, yet here we are yet again: Edwards has taken the sure-and-steady course of consistency and put himself atop the Sprint Cup standings with one final race to run. Granted, he’s only got a three-point advantage over Stewart, but he’s in the lead and dealing with a points system that turns the “Chase for the Championship” into a difference of four positions on the track come Sunday afternoon.

The question still remains: was it the consistency of Edwards, crew chief Bob Osborne and the No. 99 team that put them in this position, or was it simply the nature of the season as 2011 unfolded over the last nine months? Under the old points system, Stewart would have a slight advantage over Edwards thanks to his four wins in the postseason (I’m beginning to think that Smoke may have lied to us when he said he saw his team as being “irrelevant” come the final 10 events).

Given Edwards’s accumulation of 18 top fives, 25 top 10s and average finishing position of 9.5 on the year, it looks as though it’s been consistency that’s given him the advantage going into Homestead. That observation ain’t what you’d call rocket science, but it does conjure up some interesting ideas regarding what’s consistency and what’s good luck. The two seem to have relevance as the 2011 Chase for the Championship winds down.

In order to be consistent, one needs to possess some semblance of good fortune. I can be a truly talented driver or crew chief, but without the good luck of achieving top-five or top-10 finishes, I won’t be in a position to win many (if any) races. It’s no surprise that talent is a wildly subjective term, but consider the many talented drivers who’ve fallen short of winning in 2011.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed poised to win going into the summer after an early stretch of decent finishes; there were pundits (like me) who wrote that it wasn’t a matter of if, but a matter of when the No. 88 Chevy would roll into victory lane to end its three-year losing streak.

Yet as we approach the final race of the year, the still-winless No. 88 has moved to the also-ran category of Chase qualifiers who fell short over the postseason. There came a point when running consistently near the front gave way to the inconsistencies of misfortune.

Sir Francis Bacon once said, “Look to make your course regular, that men may know beforehand what they may expect.” Given the direction of Dale Jr. and the No. 88 team over the course of 2011, following what seemed to be a regular course gave way to unexpected circumstances that ended their title run before it began.

The same was true for Johnson. Whereas consistency in the Chase had always been the No. 48 team’s strong suit, the momentum of past seasons fell victim to the fortunes of other teams capable of capturing and developing consistency of their own. Edwards, while notching top fives upon top 10s, watched as his fellow competitors overdrove their cars and second-guessed their strategies in an effort to claw their way up the points standings position-by-position.

The drawback to the new points system is that falling backward is as simple as moving forward; each position – whether ahead or behind – equates to a point in the Cup standings. Thinking about potential achievement, instead of possible accomplishment, might be the difference between chasing a championship and/or allowing the title to find its way to you.

This is a form of self-actualization as explored in the writing of Abraham Maslow, the legendary psychologist out of Brandeis University. Maslow stated that there was a difference between self-actualizing people and others, from which it would “be useful to make a distinction between living and PREPARING to live [the caps here are mine].” (“Motivation and Personality”, 2nd edition, p. 159)

This is not to say that all non-Chase contenders – and that’s all but two Cup drivers going into Sunday’s race – lack the motivation to strive for consistent performance.

This is hardly the case. The idea is that striving for the title breeds excellence across the overall team in question; when Edwards speaks of how his crew is going the extra distance to work hard and make wise decisions, might this not be an example of a race team making an effort to succeed on its own terms, and not just doing what it can to accumulate points and maintain its position in the standings?

Is the No. 99 out of Roush Fenway Racing “living” in its quest for the championship, while the well-intended preparations of its competitors caused these other teams to fall short of their ultimate goal? Is it attention to consistency that allows the No. 99 to hold its points lead and make a final push to the title? It’s a matter of being consistent, but it’s also a matter of enjoying some very good luck.

The No. 14 team has been enjoying good fortune of its own, especially once the Chase got underway and Stewart drove his way to victory for the first time in 2011. Stewart is where he is in the standings for two reasons: 1) his team worked its way into the Chase by doing whatever it could short of winning races, and 2) his team took full advantage of its newfound good luck.

Once you achieve a condition of good fortune, it seems as though you’re more apt to embrace self-actualization. As Smoke declared after his recent win at Texas, “We’re (his No. 14 team) controlling our destiny.”

Such thinking follows the logic of Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th-century British statesman who once said, “A consistent man believes in destiny, a capricious man in chance.” To recognize the difference between good luck and overall consistency is to achieve the means by which to make necessary gains. Is being consistent tied to being fortunate? Does having/making good luck allow a race team to achieve consistency? Perhaps these two elements are more closely related than we know.

NASCAR has finally achieved its goal of developing a nail-biter of a season finale. An increase in television ratings over the 2011 season proves that there is a benefit to such a resolution – a showdown between two popular drivers, fierce competitors who race their peers – and each other – fairly and cleanly (at least when compared to the actions of others racing around them).

As 1999 Cup champion Dale Jarrett put it: “I actually think it (this year’s Chase) is perfect; there should be something (a points system) in place that rewards both winning (the No. 14) and consistency (the No. 99). Carl has done it his way; Tony has done it his way. I think it’s the perfect scenario.”

Regardless of the outcome come Sunday evening, my guess is that NASCAR and the majority of fans will think so, too.

P.S. On a purely “late-adopter” note, allow me to announce that I am a-twitter with excitement. I now have a Twitter account so I can stay in touch with the world of motorsports. I’m new to such technology, but it seems (for right now) to be pretty useful.

I probably won’t have much to add that’s very significant, but it’ll give me a place to rant about the state of NASCAR Nation and maybe some other topics. At the risk of sounding all connected and important, I’m tweeting like a canary at @DrMarkDHowell.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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