News & Media

Winless streaks can test drivers' confidence

March 04, 2011, David Caraviello,

LAS VEGAS -- Kevin Harvick remembers one distinct moment when his winless streak got to him. It was at Auto Club Speedway in the second week of last season, after he had eaten up all but a fraction of what had once been a sizeable advantage for Jimmie Johnson. He was driving the high line, looking to make the pass for the lead -- when he got a little too eager and pushed his No. 29 car a little too hard. He banged against the wall, settled for second place, and a slump that would ultimately reach 115 races continued.

"Instead of being patient, I tried to force the issue," Harvick said Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. "Once you get out of that winning mode and you try to force things, you start screwing more up than you help."

"Once you get out of that winning mode and you try to force things, you start screwing more up than you help."


For a driver accustomed to reaching Victory Lane, a winless streak can have that effect. Droughts can sap confidence, force rash decisions and compound whatever other problems a team is having on the race track. Jeff Gordon snapped a nearly two-year-long slump of 66 races with his victory last weekend at Phoenix, but what he went through is nothing new. Many of his peers in the Sprint Cup garage area can identify with the frustration and self-doubt that are capable of wracking even a top-level driver in the midst of a winless skid that feel like it's never going to end.

"There's no doubt, when you go that length of time without winning, you question a lot of things -- is it me, is it the car, is it the combination? I don't care who you are or how many races you've won, you question those things," Gordon said. "... When you're on top, you can get away with a lot of things. But when you're not, you have to put in the extra effort, because everybody around you is. When you put in that extra effort and it doesn't pay off, it's very frustrating. So there's no doubt frustration sunk in. A little bit of doubt. It's amazing how that one win can bring that right back."

While it lasts, though, a winless streak can feel like carrying around a load of the lead ballast that crew chiefs sometimes put in their cars to improve balance. Mark Martin went 109 starts over four years before returning to Victory Lane at Phoenix in the spring of 2009. Was there doubt in his own mind about whether he still had it, whether he would ever win again? "It all goes through my mind. Maybe not someone else's, but in my mind it does," Martin said.

"I went through a spell, I think it was around '96, where I could run second, and it seemed like I ran second fairly often, but I couldn't get a win. I wondered about it a little bit then. When it comes later in your career, if you're somehow not managing to be as effective, there are all different things. Fear of failing, doubt, those things are what fuel me. That's part of my fuel. That's what makes me as effective as I am."

Carl Edwards broke a 70-race winless streak at Phoenix last fall. "I'm trying to think if there's anything more difficult than that, but I don't think there is," he said. "I think that's the most difficult part of the sport. You go for a long period without the success that you want, or in Jeff's case the success he's used to. I can't speak for him, but I can say, in my position, when we won that race at Phoenix last year, it was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, and I still carry that right now to this day, and I will until we either win another one or it gets to 40 or 50 races down the road if we haven't. That's a great feeling, to get rid of that pressure and to win a race after a streak like that."

And yet, the experience isn't the same for every driver. Jeff Burton ended the mother of all winless skids, a 185-race slump that spanned parts of six seasons, at Dover in the fall of 2006. He said he took it race by race, and realized that there were extenuating circumstances -- issues at his former No. 99 team at Roush Racing, a loss of sponsor, and a move to a Richard Childress Racing organization that was still reorganizing after the loss of Dale Earnhardt. But he was able to still turn competitive lap times and find speed in the car, factors that kept his confidence up then and does the same thing now, during a 79-race stretch since his last victory at Charlotte in the fall of 2008.

"Every professional athlete has times in their career when they're better, and times when they're worse," Burton said. "You don't want to accept that, but it happens. You have to bust your ass to make sure it doesn't happen, but the reality is, it does happen. So you have to be aware that that's out there. And when you're in the midst of it ... drivers know. Drivers know when they're not doing as well as they can do. You have to be honest with that, honest to yourself and the people around you, and if you have talent, and if you have the desire, you'll get out of it. If you don't have the desire, and you don't have the talent, you can't. But there's no one in this garage that's been winning races that forgot how."

That's a group that would include Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is on a 95-race winless skid since his last victory at Michigan in the summer of 2008. And then there's Bobby Labonte, who carries a 254-race drought -- the longest among any active, full-time driver on the Cup tour -- since his most recent win at Homestead on the final day of the 2003 season.

"There's no doubt that it's hard on you if you're used to winning races or things like that," said Labonte, currently eighth in points. "The sport is humbling, and passes you by, or weeks go by, and next thing you know you're like, 'Oh crap, I haven't won one in three weeks.' You see guys who go through that all the time. Fortunately or unfortunately, there's never anyone who from A to Z in their career is completely dominant, and doesn't have their dry spells or have their [down] times and moments. Again, that's good and bad. But it does weigh on you. Obviously, it's great to see [Gordon] win last weekend. He was able to go through the offseason and build his confidence with his new team."

No question, outside influences often play a role in extending a driver's winless streak. Burton's primary car sponsor at Roush, Exide Batteries, departed the sport. Martin ran a limited schedule for two years before joining forces with Rick Hendrick. The RCR team that Harvick and Burton compete for has suffered through a pair of trying rebuilding projects. Labonte joined a Petty Enterprises organization just as it began its serious decline, and was forced to take some lower-level rides before his current opportunity with JTG/Daugherty Racing came along.

But it's not always circumstances. Sometimes things just aren't working, and it's difficult to figure out why -- and that's when confidence begins to suffer. Gordon said he worked harder over his last two winless years than he's ever worked before, from emphasizing communication and feedback to trying to get himself in better physical shape. During winless seasons in his Roush days, Martin recalls having to fight negative emotions that were trying to interfere with his interactions with other team members. Burton remembers the end of his tenure with Roush, and how it felt to be the only member of a five-car organization that wasn't winning.

"When you are only one in your organization not running well, that's when it becomes a problem," Burton said. "When you've made changes and changes and can't get there, that's when the confidence becomes a problem. I experienced that some at Roush, where we just couldn't make it all work. There were times when I could show, yeah, look, I can still do it. But most of the people around me were having more success than I was, and that's when confidence begins to be a problem."

The breakthrough can bring mixed emotions, from the clear relief that Gordon and Edwards felt in their respective drought-busters in Phoenix, to the gratitude Burton felt in Dover toward Childress, the car owner who had shown faith in him. Nobody, though, risks celebrating too long. "I'm over it pretty damn quick," Burton said. How long did Harvick relish his eventual skid-snapper at Talladega in the spring of last year? "It's over [the next] week," he said. Gordon allowed himself to celebrate his Phoenix victory until Tuesday morning, when he held his weekly debrief with crew chief Alan Gustafson and the No. 24 team engineers and began to shift his focus to Las Vegas.

Once he arrived in the Nevada desert, Gordon received a rude wake-up call: a spin on his first lap of practice Friday morning. No, he's not in Phoenix anymore. But he won't forget it, either.

"Yeah, I come here, spin first lap, and that definitely brings you a little back to reality," said Gordon, who kept his vehicle off the wall and saved his primary car. "But that's not going to make how special that win was go away anytime soon."