The Perfect Race

To do what Martin Truex Jr. did in the Coke 600 really can't happen. But he did it anyway.

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There’s something brilliant that baseball has that no other sport does: The perfect game. There’s nothing comparable if you think about it. What is a perfect game anyway? It is a game where the pitcher and defense so thoroughly dominate the batters that not one of them reaches first base.

In other words: Boring.

Except, it isn’t boring. Not in baseball. No, this is the wonder of the perfect game — it’s thoroughly engrossing. It turns the relative lack of action into something magnificent, something awe-inspiring, something thoroughly wonderful. We watch those last few outs with our hearts in our throats, and we desperately root for inaction. We care about the perfection if we don’t care at all about either team. This is history, man.

What other sport has that? You can’t have a perfect game in football — well, yes, quarterbacks can have perfect passer ratings, though that doesn’t compare, and who really cares about passer ratings? The closest thing I can find to a perfect basketball game belongs to, of all people Brad Miller when he was playing for the Charlotte Hornets in 1999. He made all nine of his field goal attempts, all seven of his free throws, and he did not commit a single foul or turnover. Nobody remembers.

There’s no perfection in hockey — that is a sport that celebrates and luxuriates in imperfection.

Tennis does have something called the “Golden Set” where one player wins every single point in the set … but it’s rare, and it isn’t any fun. I would never root for one of those. A birdie on every hole in golf might qualify as perfection, but as far I know it’s never happened, and even if it did happen that’s not really “perfect.” I mean, there are no eagles on the card.

There is perfection in gymnastics and diving and other judged sports, but, you know, these depend on the judges … so that’s a whole other thing.

The idea of perfection in sports seems to be the sole property of Major League Baseball and any reproduction or other use of perfection without the express written consent of baseball is strictly prohibited.

And that’s too bad. Because on Sunday, Martin Truex Jr. had the closest thing to a perfect NASCAR race we will likely every see. There’s no name for it, and no emotions that are tied to it, and there’s not even any obvious history connected to it. And, as such, Truex’s bid for the ideal race disappears like other great, but temporary performances drawn in the sand.*

*On the same day, Jordan Spieth had one of the greatest finishes in the history of the PGA Tour. He was tied for the lead at the 16th hole and he made a winding, ridiculous long birdie putt to take the lead. Next hole, he chipped in from 45-feet for another birdie. And on the 18th hole, he made an absurd 35-footer for yet another birdie. Any one of those shots would have been a lifelong story for just about every golfer on earth. He made three of them in a row. And, yes, it will be forgotten by Thursday and the start of the next tournament.

***

Truex has had a haunted year.  Here’s how you can tell this: If you are are not a NASCAR fan at all or just a mild one, there’s a decent chance you barely recognize the name. And yet, Truex is this close to having one of those magical Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon racing seasons. He began the year by losing the closest Daytona 500 ever — losing it to Denny Hamilin by 0.01 seconds. It is all but impossible to comprehend what 0.01 seconds means, so you can imagine how hard it is to comprehend losing the sport’s biggest race by that incomprehensible amount of time.

He went to Texas and dominated the race, leading the most laps, but with 45 to go the team decided not to take on fresh tires. That was a mistake, and he fell all the way to sixth. “We did everything we were supposed to do,” Truex said, “except for that one deal there.”

He won the pole at Kansas and again dominated the race until, well, it’s still not entirely clear what happened. It was, according to the Kansas City Star, an overheated lug nut that caused him to take an extra pit stop and go a lap down. To verify: An overheated lug nut.

Then, at Dover, he again led for much of the race, put himself in great position for a late restart — and it just so happened the guy in front of him, Jimmie Johnson, had transmission problems, couldn’t get out of second gear, and this led to what NASCAR calls an “accordion crash” which is just a whole bunch of cars bumping into each other’s rear bumpers.

That’s a whole lot of crazy bad luck, enough bad luck that even in the hypercompetitive world of stock car racing, you could hear a sort of “shucks, I hope he wins one of these” sympathy when other drivers talked. Then Truex came to Charlotte for what is probably the second-biggest NASCAR race of the year. And, he was beyond awesome.

First, he won the pole.

Then, he led all but eight laps of the race.

Then, he got the checkered flag.

Nobody has ever dominated a NASCAR race quite like that.

“I kind of felt like he was toying with us,” JImmie Johnson would say afterward. Johnson is the only driver who actually passed Truex on the night. He was ahead of Truex for roughly four seconds.

“And then,” Johnson said, “he just took off again.”

He led for 588 of the 600 miles — that’s a record. And it likely will never be broken. See — and I don’t need to tell NASCAR fans this — but the whole point of the sport is to make everything exactly even. Some of America’s brightest engineers work constantly with drag and downforce and all sorts of other things I don’t understand in order to make sure that guys like Martin Truex Jr., NEVER dominate a race like that. NASCAR is about competition. It’s about cars that can’t pull away from each other. It’s about taking away any and all advantages.

So, to do what the Truex Jr. team did on Sunday, well, it really can’t happen. But it did anyway. The team found speed that the other drivers couldn’t find. They kept that speed going for 600 miles. It was so jaw-dropping that even Jeff Gordon, who certainly had his moments of domination through the years, said on FOX that we will likely never see anything like that again.

I keep waiting for people to call it The Perfect Race. But they can’t because … there is no such thing as a perfect race.  After all, he didn’t lead EVERY lap (you can’t really lead every lap because of pit stops and so on). He set a race speed record, but he probably could have gone a little faster. So, if it wasn’t perfect, what was it? Well, as Charlotte Observer columnist Scott Fowler wrote Monday morning: “There is a blurry line in a sports event between ‘dominating’ and ‘boring’ and Martin Truex Jr. drove all over it.”

And later Fowler clarified is as “B-o-o-o-r-ing.”

So there you go. Scott is right. It was boring to watch one car so thoroughly dominate the entire night. But, as he also said, this wasn’t Truex’s fault. He was just about perfect. It’s just that, outside of baseball, perfection doesn’t make for much excitement.