Being the fastest car during...
Being the fastest car during the course of the race is great, but what do you do when you miss the setup and only have a third-place car? John Gibson
Put Yourself In A Position To Win
We have all heard the saying "The fastest car doesn't always win the race." But is there any truth to that saying? After watching a great deal of stock car races one might say that, yes, it happens all the time. Think of the most recent race you watched, whether it was on TV or at your local short track. Was there one car that had the entire field covered and was laying down some of the fastest lap times in the race, only to end up finishing Second or even worse?
This is especially true in the Sprint Cup series where track position has become so crucial. I can't even tell you the amount of times I have watched a race on television, turned it off for whatever reason, and was watching the news later that night and said, What, how did he win?! Which was usually followed by, What happened to ______?! What happens to these drivers or teams that makes them miss out on the opportunities to win these races?
Great crew chiefs and great drivers understand it's not about being the fastest car at any given point during the race. This is going to sound elementary, but it's about being the fastest car to finish the entire race. If it's a race of 200 laps, it's the fastest car to finish 200 laps. So, in reality, the fastest car always wins the race.
Drivers who can understand this and race this way enter a new realm of greatness. David Pearson was well known for not just running well, but for putting himself in a position to win the race on a consistent basis. Just look at his stats: 574 races and he won 105 times, but he also had 366 Top 10 finishes. That means while he won 18 percent of the time, he finished Top 10 in 63 percent of the races in which he competed. The amazing thing about this stat is that both of these percentages are better than not only Richard Petty, but also Dale Earnhardt. In 1974 David Pearson missed 11 races out of 30 and still finished Third in points!
David Pearson understood the importance of putting himself into a position to win the race. Don't fall into the thinking that track position isn't as crucial just because you're not running in the bigger leagues. So what does this mean for Friday or Saturday night racers who typically only run 20-50 laps? What it means is, for starters, you need to put a little more emphasis on qualifying, whether that's through heat races or actual one- or two-lap qualifying. By having so few laps in the race, you have to start upfront to realistically have a better chance at finishing up front. During the race you are going to have to be looking for the opportunities to position yourself better for the last few laps.
Let me give you an example. Let's say you qualified fourth in a 25-lap race, and you've gotten a really good start and are running third with 15 laps to go. The first two cars have checked out and you really don't have anything for them. The driver behind you is really putting a lot of pressure on you and is literally inches off your bumper. In a longer race you might think about letting him go to conserve your tires and car. But with only 15 laps to go you really don't want to give up the position. You get a caution with eight laps to go, and will be getting the green with five to go.
This is the opportunity that you were looking for. With five to go, the field will be bunched up and you're looking at a really good finish. The driver behind you gets a much better start than you do and pulls to your outside to pass you coming to get the green. A lesser driver might think about just giving him the outside line and racing him for position but instead you squeeze him into the wall, killing his momentum. You have just saved your opportunity to still win this race. With two laps to go the driver behind you is still pressuring you, but coming to the white flag, the first and second cars have gotten together and lost a ton of momentum. Because you pulled that block earlier you're able to jump to their outside and rocket past them for the victory.
Congratulations you've just won the race. In tech later that evening you hear someone say, "Yeah, but they didn't have the fastest car in the race." And all you can do is smile. The point is great drivers will always put themselves in position to win races. They may not always have the fastest car, but they will always make the best out of the car they have underneath them that night.