Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Intangibles Can Make or Break a NASCAR Champion

It takes a lot of things to make a driver a champion: fast racecars, a rock-solid crew and a crew chief who can make a good car great. Every gear, every spring and every tire has to be right. In the closing laps of the final race, if the car isn’t right, it can all fall apart—or it can all be right.

But what about what can’t be measured? What about luck? What about confidence and fortitude? Do those even matter? 

Yes, they do.

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Intangibles absolutely matter. The Next Gen racecar is an unpredictable thing. One week a driver is on top of the world, the next he can’t get out of his own way. How a driver reacts to the down weeks is as important as how he drives the best car. 

Martin Truex Jr. finished the summer hot. But he stumbled into the playoffs after a 24th-place finish at Daytona International Speedway and has not finished better than 17th since. 

Everyone knows that Truex can win races. He’s a solid, steady, consistent driver. But he and his No. 19 team have struggled for a month, and while he’s still fifth in the standings with no need to panic, he’s got a track where he’s struggled in the past up next. He’s been just okay at the one after that, and that’s the next cutoff race.

Sometimes struggling causes a team to fall into a trap: instead of doing what they’ve always done, the things that have served them well and won them races, they make changes, little ones, then big ones and then they throw the kitchen sink at the car and none of it helps. Of course it doesn’t, because it’s not what worked.

A driver can also be his own worst enemy. Sunday (Sept. 24) in Texas Motor Speedway, that was Kyle Larson. Racing for the lead, Larson leaned on Bubba Wallace a little, trying to take some air off of the No. 23, and lost control of his own car instead. Credit Larson for not taking Wallace with him, but he’s a driver who, despite his elite talent, sometimes gets in over his head. He could easily have many more wins than he does, and some of those he inadvertently threw away by overdriving when he didn’t need to.

Larson opened the playoffs with three straight top fives, including a win in the Southern 500, and sailed through the Round of 16. But he took his mulligan in the Round of 12 at Texas with a track that will have them out like candy next week. Larson’s excellent on a road course, but that doesn’t mean he can afford to back himself into a corner before the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL.

Making mistakes is a little like having a car that’s a tick off and throwing things at it to see what sticks. Everyone makes them. It’s when a driver goes out trying not to make one that they can start to multiply. Racing to win is different than racing not to lose, and it’s a different mindset entirely.

But what about positive momentum? William Byron has that on his side. He’s in a great position with three top 10s so far in the playoffs, including the one that might be the most coveted outside of Phoenix Raceway: the first race in the round that includes Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte road course. Unlike the rest of the playoff field, Byron doesn’t have to worry about getting caught in the Talladega Big One or skidding through turn 1 at Charlotte. He can run his own races.

But he can’t relax. Momentum can change on a dime; it did for teammate Larson, who finds himself clinging to the last spot above the cutline.

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But confidence goes a long way toward something else: luck.

The adage that it’s better to be lucky than good has never been more true in NASCAR than it has since the playoffs entered the picture. Sometimes the difference between getting caught in the Big One or squeezing through is as much the luck of the draw as it is a driver’s skill. 

But it’s also true that a driver can make his own luck. While nowhere is really safe on a superspeedway, the leader controls his own destiny more than the 15th-place driver does.

Confidence can be a tricky thing though. Overconfidence can lead to mistakes or even to a little bit of a lackadaisical attitude. Lack of it can keep a driver from putting his car on the ragged edge. Talking the talk still needs to be backed up by walking the walk.

Enter Denny Hamlin. Hamlin is certainly plenty talented to win titles, but he hasn’t quite shown the intangibles that lead to one. In 2010, Hamlin entered the final race with a 15-point lead over second-place Jimmie Johnson. The NASCAR Cup Series still used the Latford point system in 2010, so it was a little easier to make up ground. Still, Hamlin seemed supremely confident heading into the finale, perhaps attempting to get inside the notoriously unflappable Johnson’s head a little.

It didn’t work, but perhaps Hamlin got into his own head instead. Or maybe the No. 11 just wasn’t dialed in that day. Whatever it was, Johnson was the one hoisting the trophy at the end of the day, with Hamlin barely holding on to second over Kevin Harvick.

And 2011 was a miserable year for Hamlin, who finished a distant ninth in points. Can Hamlin turn his swagger into the kind of confidence that brings the luck he’ll need to win when the pressure is insanely high at Phoenix? He has walked the walk so far. He has the equipment. He just has to stay out of his own head.

It takes a great car to win races. But to win titles, it also takes a driver who can turn momentum his way, keep it there and keep his cool when things aren’t going right. Intangibles are so often the difference between a title and a runner-up finish. Which driver will hit the perfect combination of speed, skill, momentum and luck this year? We’re about to find out.

About the author

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Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Carl D.

A good read, Amy.

Racing to win is different than racing not to lose, and it’s a different mindset entirely”. So true. It’s even more important at Talladega. Playoff drivers have to decide whether to join the craziness at the front or drop to the rear to try and avoid the big one. A good finish is almost as much luck as it is skill and horsepower. I dread Talladega.

Echo

Larsen wrecked himself, he admitted that. He didn’t lose momentum because he has so much confidence in his ability that he can win every race he enters. Dega is luck, luck you were in the right position to avoid the big one or unlucky you were in the wrong place. It happens at the front, middle and tail of the field. So whose lucky day will it be ! Wonder if all spacers are equal at dega. Perhaps the crew chiefs should draw them out of a hat in front of rolling cameras, then we can all be sure.

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