In NASCAR, Strategy Reins Supreme

One of my main objectives in following and writing about NASCAR is to teach others about an oft misunderstood sport and hopefully turn them into fans.   One of the most exciting things about following a sport is learning the intricacies of what makes it great.  In the case of NASCAR, it goes well beyond the 850 horsepower cars, the multi-car wrecks and drivers going three-wide into the corner, though they don’t hurt.

But, in this regard, I compare NASCAR to baseball, as I feel baseball suffers from similiar misunderstanding.  The average person tuning in doesn’t find beauty in the changeup that’s thrown for a ball when the pitcher is ahead in the count 1-2. Balls are boring.  Or so it would appear.

The fact that the ball was thrown slowly and off the plate for a reason is lost on many.  They then watch with excitement as the next pitch – a 95 mph heater inside – throws the hitter off balance and causes them to swing and miss for strike three not knowing that the ‘boring’ ball made it all possible.  It’s called a setup pitch or a purpose pitch.

NASCAR is full of purpose pitches. There is a far more nuanced and cerebral aspect of racing and yesterday’s post on Bleacher Report ranking “the most intelligent drivers in NASCAR today” got me thinking more about it. Note: Tony Stewart ranked #1 on this particular list.  This served as a follow-up to a similar pieceon crew chiefs.

Feb 21, 2013; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jimmie Johnson (right) talks with crew chief Chad Knaus before the Budweiser Duel race one at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

In every race you’re competing against a field of drivers, not just one opponent that you can focus your efforts and planning on.  Each crew has to understand who they’re running with, what their tendencies are, how they’re running that day, how many tires they took on the last pit.  All of this information has to reach the drivers in real time and then they have to act on it.  The ability to do this after racing a car for 3.5 hours requires unbelievable knowledge and mental acuity not to mention nerves of steel.

In other sports, we see a team outplay their opponent for the win and we marvel at the game plan that neutralized the other team’s best weapons.  Why then don’t people admire the same thing in a driver making it to victory lane on Sunday?

In a sport as tightly controlled as NASCAR where the cars are required to meet stringent specifications, it still holds true that all cars are not created equal.  Still, the fastest car doesn’t always win. It’s difficult for the casual onlooker to wrap their head around because it runs counter to conventional wisdom.

Just look at Matt Kenseth’s results at Texas Motor Speedway – the site of this weekend’s race.  Thanks to our friends at Athlon Sports, we see that last fall despite averaging just the 10th-best green-flag speed Kenseth finished fourth.  The opposite also holds true.  Again looking at Kenseth’s numbers, in the spring of 2008 he clocked the fourth highest green-flag speed but finished ninth at TMS.

At Fontana two weeks ago Joey Logano threw a block on Tony Stewart on the restart. The move was controversial, but effective.  He finished third.  Heading into that race Greg Biffle cited pit strategy as a big part of what he wanted to focus on.  He finished sixth.

Speaking of pit strategy, last weekend at Martinsville, Danica Patrick’s quick thinking on pit road set her up to make some moves at the end of the race allowing her to finish twelfth – her best showing since Daytona.

Also at Martinsville right before the start of the race DW connected with Clint Bowyer over the radio to talk strategy. Bowyer explained that it was going to be all about “patience” and “keeping the fenders on the car.”  He finished second.

Three of the next five races – Texas, Kansas and Darlington – are intermediate tracks where speed and consistency are the name of the game.

We’ll see who has the fastest car and we’ll see who wins and why.

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