How do you win a NASCAR race? To many, the answer is simple: Drive as fast as you can until the checkered flag waves. Turn left a lot, or right and left if it's a road course. What more does it take?
As it turns out, it takes a lot more than that. Before the drivers even put on their fire suits, they have to make sure they are sufficiently hydrated. With temperatures reaching or exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit inside the race cars, dehydration is a big problem. Dehydration can be a big problem if you're only in the car for 20 minutes, but can really be bad when you're in the car for 4 hours. Drivers have to be prepared to be in the car for at least that long in an average Sprint Cup race.
Winning races means having good equipment and good engineering behind that equipment. It doesn't always mean having the best of the best, but the equipment has to be good, in a relative sense. If you have an engine that's only going to run 400 miles out of a 500 mile race, that isn't good. If you are the driver, you don't really care if the engine can make it to 505 miles if all you need is for it to run 500 miles. Having the best equipment doesn't always guarantee a win though.
A common myth is that the car that wins the race is the fastest on the track. That absolutely is not true. In truth, the car that wins the race is leading when it crosses the start/finish line when the checkered flag waves. The reason why that car might be in that position has nothing to do with whether or not it's the fastest car on the track. How that driver got the car in that position could mean a lot of things. Did the driver push when he needed to and hold back when he didn't? Did he find the best groove around the track and follow it? Did he pit when he needed to, and get the right combination of tires and adjustments to his car? Did he get enough fuel on the last pit stop? Does he need to conserve fuel by backing off a little on the throttle when he can? If he runs a high line around the track instead of a low line, will that increase his overall speed?
That's just a short list of all the things a driver has to think about while he's making laps at nearly 200 miles per hour. He's also got to think about whether or not he's given his crew chief good feedback about how the car is handling. The fastest car on the track with the wrong chassis setup will not win the race. He's also got to worry about whether or not he drank too much water or Gatorade before the race, and if he might have to have an accident inside his fire suit. He's got to think about whether or not his spotter is actually watching his exact position on the track, relative to other cars, or is he chatting it up with another spotter?
The driver can't really spend a lot of time worrying about other cars on the track, except the cars directly in front or behind him. If he's leading a car, he's got to think about how to stay in front of the other car. If he's approaching another car, he's got to figure out a way to pick his line around that car. A driver's work is never totally done as long as the car is on the track. The average race car driver has to make probably more decisions, in the blink of an eye, for 3 or 4 hours, than most of us will have to make in a 40 hour work week.
Luck, that most improbable of things, and probably the hardest to explain, has a lot to do with winning races. A driver can be leading a race by half a lap, and will be seemingly unstoppable. He might run over a piece of debris, and cut down a tire. At the very least, he will have to pit. In the worst case scenario, he will crash. He might cause a lot of other cars to crash as well. The engine might just let go. A belt might break, and a driver suddenly has no oil pressure. A million things can go wrong and ruin a perfectly good race.
Did the crew chief do his homework? How prepared is he to handle emergency situations like a blown tire or a major chassis problem? If you hit the wall, can he fix the car or will you have to go to the garage for major repairs?
Racing, much like life, is basically a crap shoot. You pay your money, your roll the dice. The drivers that win the most benefit from careful preparation and from having good people around them.
When the green flag drops, just about anything can happen. Every driver knows that, no matter how well prepared. Winning is having the best car on a given Sunday or Saturday night. It's also about being the best driver and the best crew on that given day.