The debate always rages on whenever a driver wins a race not because he had the fastest car that day, but because he was in the right place at the right time. Whether it's holding the lead at the moment rain starts to fall, which is how Matt Kenseth won this year's Daytona 500, or, in Mark Martin's case in Sunday's LifeLock 400, when the two drivers in front of you run out of fuel, the question persists, is the win legitimate?
For drivers it always is, without question. Each of them has lost races they should have won, so when they chance into a victory, they tend to look at it as evening the score.
Jimmie Johnson dominated Sunday's race at Michigan International Speedway, leading 146 of 200 laps, and probably should have won. But he ran out of gas just before taking the white flag signaling the final lap while leading and wound up crossing the finish line 22nd.
Last April at Phoenix, Johnson stretched his fuel longer than anyone else and won. Coincidentally, the driver Johnson snatched victory from that day was Martin, who held the lead until he had to pit for fuel with just 10 laps to go.
Martin got his payback Sunday, when both Johnson and Greg Biffle ran out of gas – Biffle ran out on the final lap – clearing a path for him to grab his third victory of the season.
"I always, always come up short on the gas mileage thing," Martin said. "If you look at the stats, you know, I've lost 25 and won two probably on it. You know, I just don't have the luck for it."
Some of those watching in the stands and at home, however, don't want to hear about "lucking" into wins. They tune in to watch a race which, by definition, is a contest of speed, not mastering one's understanding of Doppler Radar or a fuel gauge. So in their minds, Kenseth's Daytona 500 victory, along with David Reutimann's win in the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600, come with an asterisk.
Maybe they think Martin's should, too.
The problem with placing asterisks on results is where do you stop? Should Jeff Gordon's win at Texas earlier this year come with one because Carl Edwards' pit crew screwed up their final stop? Should Game 4 of the NBA Finals have an asterisk because there's no way Jameer Nelson should have laid off of Derek Fisher? Should the New York Yankees' win over the Mets the other night have one because Luis Castillo should have caught that popup with two outs in the ninth?
No matter how routine, pit stops, guarding the 3-point line, catching popups are part of their respective games. Everyone knows this going in, which is why they practice, why there are coaches, why they have a game plan.
Rain didn't creep up on anyone at Daytona in February and especially not at Charlotte in May – a race that was delayed a day because of showers. On those days, instead of figuring out how the track might change as the race wore on, drivers and crew chiefs had to consider the weather and how best to put themselves out front when it came. It was part of the strategy.
Yes, Reutimann took a gamble by staying on the track when everyone in front of him pitted, but it was no bigger of a gamble than the one Tony Stewart took last week at Pocono when he squeezed out 40 laps – 10 more than normal – on a single tank of fuel. If the rain had stopped in Charlotte, Reutimann would have fallen down on the leaderboard, just as Stewart would have if he had run out of gas at Pocono.
And had he run out of gas, then he would have lost because of a failed strategy, just as the Magic did in Game 4 when Stan Van Gundy opted not to foul Fisher, and just as Johnson did Sunday when, thinking he had plenty of fuel to get him to the end, he put the pedal to the metal instead of conserving, like Martin.
"I did have to work the car really hard to get through traffic and catch Mark [Martin] and get by him and same with [Greg Biffle]," said Johnson, who on the orders of crew chief Chad Knaus drove hard in the closing laps to pass Martin and Biffle to take the lead with six laps to go. "Through that I must have used more fuel than we thought we would have."
When Johnson ran out of gas on the final lap, Biffle assumed the lead for a brief moment. But then he, too, ran out of gas, opening things up for Martin, who had been laying back, conserving fuel for more than 30 laps.
"I couldn't save gas and run that pace that they were trying to run," Martin explained. "I started saving from the third lap [after the final pit stop]."
In every race there are multiple areas of strategy. Fuel conservation is one of them. Staying in front of the weather is another. And just like how many tires to take on a pit stop or how much wedge to put in our take out of the car, both can determine who gets to the finish line first, which satisfies the definition of what a race is.