The Fastest Drivers in NASCAR

Monte Dutton@@monteduttonFeatured ColumnistNovember 9, 2016

The Fastest Drivers in NASCAR

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    Lots are fast, but who's the fastest?
    Lots are fast, but who's the fastest?Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Fast. Such a simple adjective. NASCAR makes it complicated, though.

    Is it fast for 500 miles, or laps or kilometers? Or is it fast for one lap? Is it fast all alone or fast in traffic? Is the driver fast because he (or she) has the most talent? Or is it because he drives the fastest car?

    Race fans argue about these shades of differences. Broadened properly—and "fast" is easily broadened and narrowed—it's the central bone of contention that drives the sport.

    The goal of racing is getting to the end—which is the same place as the start—faster than everybody else.

    The driver who leads almost every lap? He's fast. The one who bides his time, works with his team, tinkers with the setup and steals the race at the end? He's fast, too. The driver who, out front, sizes up his pursuers and anticipates their every move? Oh, that's fast. The one who seizes an advantage and jets to the front in breathtaking fashion? He's so fast it quickens the pulse of everyone watching.

    It's impossible to win the Sprint Cup championship without being fast. It helps to be clever, intimidating, determined and brave. But those virtues are merely tools in the champion's belt.

    This is right now. Yesterday it included Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, who are bowing out. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been injured. Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne have slumped. Jamie McMurray seems perpetually perched on the edge. Tomorrow, expect Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney.

    Danica Patrick is the fastest woman. Also the only woman.

    All such things considered, herewith are the fastest of the NASCAR fast: 

10. Denny Hamlin, Toyota #11

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Denny Hamlin is so fast he can't slow down. He is his own worst enemy, particularly on pit road, where the virtual speed trap has frequently ticketed him. He has every tool to win the championship, but he leads the Sprint Cup Series in unforced errors.

    The Chesterfield, Virginia, native's penchant for mistakes this year is reflected in the fact that his finishes are, on average, 1.4 positions worse than his starts this year. That may not seem particularly severe, but it's near the bottom in the series.

    Hamlin is a throwback to NASCAR greats of the past. He burst on the scene after catching the attention of Joe Gibbs Racing on the short tracks of his native state.

    His first seven career victories were all on tracks that were relatively flat. Over time, he has become adept at all the varying layouts that make up NASCAR's premier series.

9. Kurt Busch, Chevrolet #41

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Busch brothers—Kurt and Kyle—have much in common. Both have won championships. Both are often their own worst enemies. Both have petulant streaks etched in their personalities.

    Kurt Busch, 38, is the elder. He won a championship in the first year (2004) a Chase was in place. He has bounced around. He's served NASCAR suspensions and bounced from one quality team to another. Now, at Stewart Haas Racing, he seems to have found a home, not to mention a late-blooming maturity.

    It is wrong to equate Kurt's erratic personality with the skill he displays on the track, where he isn't erratic at all. He holds position—an average of 12.0 at the start, 11.8 at the midpoint and 12.0 at the end—better than anyone else.

8. Carl Edwards, Toyota #19

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    One wonders how much longer Carl Edwards, 37, can continue to turn back flips when he leaps out of cars in triumph. If he ever wins the Sprint Cup championship, perhaps it will be a good time for one last feat of acrobatics.

    Edwards came close—as close as any driver can without winning—in 2011, when Stewart defeated him by a tiebreaker. He seriously contended in 2005 and 2008. Contending is getting old, too, for the aging All-American Boy. Edwards burns for a championship.

    Can Edwards hang it out and make that Toyota go fast? Oh, yeah. He's won six poles this year. He ranks in the top 10 in almost every NASCAR statistical category: driver rating, average finish, average start, laps led, etc.

    He is ambitious. Until he wins a Chase, he is unfulfilled.

7. Matt Kenseth, Toyota #20

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    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Some would say Matt Kenseth isn't fast. He's sneaky.

    Okay. Sneaky-fast. Like an unexpected fastball from a junk-balling reliever. Kenseth, 44, is unflappable. He doesn't get mad. He gets even. Ask Joey Logano. When Logano crossed the line Kenseth considered reasonable in the 2015 Chase, the veteran just waited for an opportunity to take the law into his own hands. And did he ever.

    Kenseth's no bad guy, but he thought he'd been wronged and decided Logano wasn't going to win the Chase, either. Harsh message delivered.

    When the Chase is decided in South Florida, Kenseth could wade into a second championship like a thief from the surf.

6. Joey Logano, Ford #22

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    Logano got Mark Martin's endorsement as a future champion when he was 12 years old. He had to wait until he was 18 to climb into a Sprint Cup car and compete. When Logano arrived, someone dubbed him "Sliced Bread," as in "greatest thing since sliced bread."

    It was the same way a rookie might be called "Hot Shot" in other sports. Many resented him. He learned some hard lessons. He matured. He seemed headed for the championship a year ago until fate, in the form of a disgruntled Kenseth, intervened.

    NASCAR has a statistical category known as "Quality Passes." Logano has more of them this year than any other driver.

    Logano is still a hard charger, even at a ripe old age of 26.

5. Brad Keselowski, Ford #2

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Brad Keselowski is always thinking. He has an opinion about everything in NASCAR and most everything outside it. He is the product of a three-generation racing family from the Midwest. He has dreamed of NASCAR stardom since his dad Bob and uncle Ron were competing there.

    He won the Chase in 2013 and has stalked another one ever since. It won't happen this year. But Keselowski, who has won four times and was eliminated in the second round due to engine failure at the wrong time, will be back. He's in his prime at age 32.

    In the season's first 33 races, drivers combined to run 9,628 laps. Keselowski was racing on the lead lap for 8,913 of them. That percentage, 92.5, is the best in the business.

4. Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet #4

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    When NASCAR implemented the current Chase format in 2014, it could scarcely have been customized better for Kevin Harvick's skills. In retrospect, it seems natural that he won the first championship contested in rounds and eliminations.

    No driver is more dominant at a single track than Harvick at Phoenix, which is at the gateway of the finals. It's the ace he uses as an admission ticket. But Harvick has no notable weaknesses and consistently runs near the front at any track that opens its gates to him.

    He leads Sprint Cup in average finish and top-10s. No one has won more races this year. He has the highest driver rating. At 40, he is a unique combination of skill and smarts.

    In the season to date, Harvick has driven the fastest car on the track in nearly 12 percent of all the laps run.

3. Martin Truex Jr., Toyota #78

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Martin Truex Jr. won't win the Chase the year, but he deserves it. An unusual allotment of bad breaks and parts failures has marked an otherwise splendid season.

    He's always had to work hard for everything he's gotten. Not just this year, either.

    Fast? Look at Truex's numbers this year. He's led over 300 more laps than any other driver.

    Truex, who drives for the only Sprint Cup team headquartered west of the Mississippi River, gets expert assistance from Toyota Racing Development and Joe Gibbs Racing. But Furniture Row Racing somehow turns solitude into a virtue at its Denver home.

    Now 36, Truex once went through five seasons without a single victory. No one is more deserving of stardom. At the moment—week in and week out—no one is faster. And no one has more peers who like him. 

2. Kyle Busch, Toyota #18

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The reigning Sprint Cup champion is the most exciting driver to watch. His love of racing is apparent in his willingness to climb into a car or a truck every time NASCAR, Gibbs and an array of sponsors will allow it. The frequency of his Xfinity and Camping World Truck victories is so scandalous that the ruling body recently changed criteria to limit his success.

    No one saves a car like Kyle Busch. No one has to as often, either. If actors were drivers, Errol Flynn would be the younger Busch brother. He's a swashbuckler of a racer.

    Kyle has always been a gracious winner and a sore loser. When things don't go his way, he pouts and misbehaves. He misbehaves less these days because he wins more.

1. Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet #48

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    Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

    In NASCAR, fast and smooth are often the same thing.

    Kyle Busch wows the grandstand with his ability to correct mistakes. Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson rarely makes any. It's why he's stalking a seventh title, which would equal the record held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.

    Johnson's detractors give his owner, Rick Hendrick, and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, more credit than they give the driver. That is absurd. Johnson's so smooth that others can't detect the subtlety of his skills. Look at this year's numbers.

    In the season's first 33 races, Johnson, 41, picked up a net of 68 positions compared to his average starting position of 13.73. The runner-up in that category, Michael McDowell with 44, had done so from an average start of 24.79. In "quality passes," i.e., of other competitive cars, Johnson was second only to Logano.

    He's had better seasons than this one. He once won five championships in a row. It's been a whole three years since he won his sixth. He's overdue.


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