February 26, 2024

Evaluating How We Judge NASCAR Drivers

The roar of the engines has faded, and the tracks have quieted, signaling the end of another season. In the lull, fans and media alike have begun the annual ritual of post-season evaluations, with some even doling out pass or fail grades as if driver performance were subject to academic evaluation. A lot of it got under our skin because a lot of factors were overlooked when forming those opinions.

One thing that stood out to us more than anything is that winning is often seen as the only barometer of success for some fans. They forget that the system awards points that go beyond first place to reward effort. But for some people, the efforts of those in second place and further back are quickly forgotten. This type of evaluation system ignores the complexity and teamwork that is essential in motorsports. It also ignores that every car and driver faces an array of circumstances that determine their outcome, many of which are far beyond the driver’s control.

Consider the top 5 and top 10 finishes, pole positions, laps led, and low DNF (Did Not Finish) stats. These metrics paint a fuller picture of a driver’s consistency and skill. Owner’s points, accumulated over a season, speak to the collective efforts of the team. Yet, the cultural zeitgeist of NASCAR fandom often bypasses these for the singular glory of a first-place finish.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to NASCAR. In many individual sports, the spotlight shines brightest on the one holding the trophy. However, NASCAR’s intricate ballet of pit crews, strategists, engineers, and the drivers themselves demonstrates that winning is far from an individual achievement. Although the driver is the face of the operation, he or she represents the efforts of an entire team. However, it’s the driver who becomes the hero or the scapegoat. It’s their name that gets attached to a pass-or-fail grade.

As we critique and celebrate, we should acknowledge everything, including all the behind-the-scenes efforts and struggles. The wins matter, but they are not the sole story. The media has a steering wheel in hand and the power to guide public perception. It’s their responsibility to highlight the intricacies of the sport, ensuring fans understand and appreciate the full spectrum of what it takes to bring a car to the track.

So, is the current assessment by fans and the media harsh or fair? It’s both. It’s harsh in its narrow view, yet fair within the established narrative of sports, where winning is everything. What should change is the narrative itself. We should expand our collective understanding of the sport and recognize that every driver who navigates the track each weekend is riding the culmination of countless hours of teamwork and dedication. So maybe we, as fans and media, should recalibrate how we discuss and assess and critique. Wins are just a part of the story; let’s read the whole book.

By Jett White