The Most Precise Drivers in NASCAR

Monte Dutton@@monteduttonFeatured ColumnistNovember 10, 2017

The Most Precise Drivers in NASCAR

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    Racing inches apart requires sustained concentration.
    Racing inches apart requires sustained concentration.Wade Payne/Associated Press

    The sleek cars of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series often appear to be on invisible rails, like the slot cars of our youth. It is but a facade. They are on the edge, a bobble away from disaster, inches separating them from walls, other cars and disaster.

    All those who race at stock car racing's premier level know how to go fast. The trick is doing so for three or four hours, traveling from 250 to 600 miles on tracks ranging from a half mile to nearly three through turns that are flat or banked and on ovals and road courses.

    The best are strong and precise everywhere. The best don't beat themselves. Fate can intervene in any NASCAR race's outcome, but luck evens out in the long run, which a grueling 36-race schedule most definitely is.

1. Martin Truex Jr., Toyota No. 78

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    In 2017, Truex has blossomed into superstardom.
    In 2017, Truex has blossomed into superstardom.Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    The tandem of Martin Truex Jr., 37, and crew chief Cole Pearn has blossomed this season into the sport's most dominant. Truex has won two more races (seven) and five more stages (19) than any other driver. He is the only driver whose average finish (9.9) is in single digits. He boasts the highest driver rating (115.7) and has led the most laps (2,175).

    Truex leads all drivers in average running position (7.396), average points position throughout the year (4.828), percentage of laps in the top 15 (89.1) and miles completed (2,941.23).

    To summarize, Truex leads in virtually every statistic that matters.

    One season does not a career make. But at the moment, Truex is the best.

2. Kevin Harvick, Ford No. 4

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    Harvick excels at making the best of every opportunity.
    Harvick excels at making the best of every opportunity.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Kevin Harvick, 41, became a Cup driver under the most difficult of circumstances. He succeeded the late Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing after Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500. He has seldom disappointed in all the years since.

    He won a championship for his present employer, Stewart-Haas Racing, in 2014. This year, the team switched manufacturers from Chevrolet to Ford. Harvick's skills have not declined, and he will be one of the four drivers who go to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with an even shot at a second title.

    Harvick has picked up more positions per race than any other title contender. This is the source of a nickname: The Closer.

3. Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet No. 48

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    The seven-time champion is having an off year.
    The seven-time champion is having an off year.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Jimmie Johnson has won seven championships. No one has won more, and only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. have won as many. This season is far from his best. Still, he has won three races.

    The measure of many drivers is how adept they are at saving a race car that is out of control. The measure of Johnson, 42, is how seldom he has to.

    Johnson has a career-low four top-five finishes this season. It's not as if he's washed up. He won his seventh title last year. One of NASCAR's great pairings, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, has lost speed. Hendrick Motorsports is NASCAR's most elite team. It will not slumber long.

4. Brad Keselowski, Ford No. 2

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    Keselowski boasts a splendid combination of skill and judgment.
    Keselowski boasts a splendid combination of skill and judgment.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Brad Keselowski, 33, is NASCAR's best performer at the two restrictor-plate tracks, Daytona and Talladega, where speeds are limited and winning is often a matter of split-second decisions and tactics on the fly. He may be the sport's best combination of skill on the track and off. He seldom makes a wrong move with the media, either.

    At Penske Motorsports, where excellence is demanded, Keselowski has far outperformed teammate Joey Logano this year. He rivals Harvick in his ability to salvage a solid performance when his performance is off. He is both patient and, when a race is on the line, aggressive.

    Keselowski is always thinking. It shows.

5. Chase Elliott, Chevrolet No. 24

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    Chase Elliott (left) with his Hall of Fame father, Bill.
    Chase Elliott (left) with his Hall of Fame father, Bill.Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    No, Chase Elliott has not yet won a Monster Cup race. It's coming. He's been close over and over, week to week.

    He's 21. Only Truex, the season's dominant driver, has spent more time in the top 15 over the season's first 34 races. The son of 1988 champion Bill Elliott, a Hall of Famer and a superstar, has spent 82.7 percent of his time running near the front in his second season.

    He has inherited popularity from his father, his predecessor at Hendrick Motorsports, Jeff Gordon, and his humble bearing.

    Next year, Elliott switches to his father's trademark No. 9. That ought to do the trick.

6. Kyle Busch, Toyota No. 18

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    There exists no track where Kyle Busch (with owner Joe Gibbs) cannot win.
    There exists no track where Kyle Busch (with owner Joe Gibbs) cannot win.Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    Kyle Busch may well win a second title. If this were a list of brilliance, he would rank at the top.

    At 32, the younger Busch brother has won 43 Cup, 91 Xfinity and 49 Truck Series races. Still, he is occasionally his own worst enemy. He is a wonderful fellow when things go his way, which is most of the time. He's a brat, though, when things don't go to suit him.

    No one is better on the stalk, and when the title is on the line at Homestead, Busch may beat Truex if he can catch him.

    The season's statistics are almost a complete set of Truex ranking first and Busch second: laps and miles led and completed, points with and without the playoffs factored in, wins and stage wins, among others.

7. Denny Hamlin, Toyota No. 11

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    Hamlin's numbers belie his penchant for mistakes.
    Hamlin's numbers belie his penchant for mistakes.Larry Papke/Associated Press

    It has been said no one is faster on pit road than Denny Hamlin.

    Penalties seldom stop him, however. In the prime of his career, Hamlin, who will turn 37 at season's end, has spent 93.53 percent of the season on the lead lap. It's one of few statistical categories Truex doesn’t lead.

    Trying to win at Martinsville Speedway in October, Hamlin knocked Chase Elliott out of the way. For the first time in his career, the move made him something of a villain. He chases a championship seeking redemption. The fans will come around in time. As was said of John Wayne and Jeff Bridges, he has proved himself a man of true grit.

8. Kyle Larson, Chevrolet No. 42

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    Larson kept his act together until the playoffs bit him.
    Larson kept his act together until the playoffs bit him.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    If Elliott has competition for the devotion of young fans, it's Larson, a likable 25-year-old Californian with twice as much experience and five career victories. Four of them came this year.

    Like another Kyle (Busch), Larson has some astonishing skills. He has maintained those while growing progressively more advanced in judgment. He entered the playoffs as one of the title favorites, and it was mechanical failure that eliminated him from contention. He's not the first young driver to slump in the postseason.

    Larson trails only Truex, Busch and Harvick in driver rating (101.9). He has lifted Chip Ganassi's two-car team on his shoulders. A title is on the way, though not this year.

9. Matt Kenseth, Toyota No. 20

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    Kenseth's last hurrah ought to be louder.
    Kenseth's last hurrah ought to be louder.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Matt Kenseth's career has mirrored that of Dale Earnhardt Jr., and both are retiring at season’s end. Earnhardt’s retirement is by choice.

    Unlike Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth won a championship (in 2003). He also wins the head-to-head competition in career wins (38-25), top-five finishes (172-148), top 10s (310-256) and average finish (14.1-15.8). Teammates Busch and Hamlin have outperformed him this year, but he earned a playoff berth with the kind of heady consistency for which he has always been noted.

    Kenseth, 45, is a casualty of hard economic times in NASCAR. Joe Gibbs apparently decided he couldn't afford to keep him. Kenseth has little interest in competing for a lesser team. He will be sorely missed.

Joey Logano, Ford No. 22

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    The season has been a major bummer for Logano.
    The season has been a major bummer for Logano.Steve Helber/Associated Press

    When a driver experiences a rough year, someone, usually another driver, often says, "He didn't forget how to drive."

    Logano, 27, won the season's ninth race, in Richmond, Virginia. He finished sixth or better in eight of the previous nine. NASCAR officials discovered irregularities in the winning car and declared the victory "encumbered," essentially meaning it wouldn’t qualify him for the playoffs.

    Since the tainted win, Logano has four top-five finishes in 25 starts. He missed out on the playoffs. His team's decline in performance is startling. Based on this year alone, he wouldn't make this list.

    But he didn't forget how to drive.