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Caraviello: Misfortune often has its roots in human error

March 30, 2011, David Caraviello,

These days, misfortune often has its roots in human error

Before they arrived at Auto Club Speedway for this past weekend's race, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano visited the Torrance, Calif., headquarters of Toyota's U.S. division to shake some hands and sign some autographs. Busch, well familiar with the run of early season misfortune his younger teammate was suffering through, asked some of the women at the facility to rub Logano's head in an attempt to change his luck.

He can use all the help he can get these days, as Logano weathers a start to the 2011 campaign so wretched that it might even prompt Job to look for a new line of work. Every week, it's been something else. Caught in a wreck at Daytona. Blown an engine at Phoenix. Assessed a tire penalty on pit road at Las Vegas. Had a wheel break at Bristol. Unfortunately, the ladies at Toyota were of little help; Logano had to drop to the rear of the field at Fontana because of an engine change, and then had his chance at a good finish scuttled by a penalty for jumping a late restart. And yet, things have been so bad for Logano that even that result moved him up one position in points -- to 29th.

"It beats you up a little bit mentally, because you know you could be 10th to 15th, or maybe even higher in points, and you're not there," Busch said. "I think he's mired back in the 20s somewhere. He's fine, and he'll get back up there. It's just a matter of getting some good weeks going here, and ... [getting] back on that string like he did last fall. I think he was the second-highest points scorer in the final 10 races. He can do it. It's not a matter of his driving talent, it's just a matter of getting it all put together."

Indeed, Logano's early struggles are surprising partly because of the way he finished last season, with a run of top-10 finishes that would have put him in the thick of the Chase had he made it, and set him up as an outside contender for the playoff this year. Now, despite cars that seemed capable of good finishes at tracks like Bristol, Las Vegas and Fontana, Logano doesn't have a result better than 23rd, and his Chase hopes may hinge on one of those two wild-card berths awarded to the drivers outside the top 10 with the most race victories.

"You don't want to take chances, but we're borderline to that point that we've got to try to make the Chase by wins, because we've put ourselves behind the eight ball so much," Logano said. "Everybody's going to have bad luck at some point. Hopefully, we've used ours up and we're good from here out. I still think we can make it by points right now. If we're as solid as we've run every week, we can still do it. We've just got to be smart, and not make any more mistakes from here out. But those wins are going to be a really big deal if we can get them."

Drivers love to talk about luck, that ethereal quality that can make or break seasons or races, that intangible element that can be the difference between mixing it up for the victory and loading up the truck early. And no question, in a sport with so many moving parts both on the race track and under the hood, there are times when sheer chance appears to manifest itself, perhaps in the form of a small piece of debris that cuts down a tire, or in a vehicle that gets loose and slides sideways in front of another competitor who has no time to get out of the way.

"Luck plays a big part in what we do," said Martin Truex Jr. "I've said it before, it takes a million things to go right to win one of these races. It only takes one to go wrong -- a flat tire, the caution coming at the wrong time, a debris caution after you pit under green, things like that. There are some things where, it doesn't matter what you do, you can't change them, and that's luck. And it's tough to deal with. Especially when you've had a good day and your team's done everything right."

A strange thing, luck, which is defined in the dictionary as a force that brings fortune or adversity. And yet, in racing circles, luck seems to work only in one direction. Cut a tire, break a part, get caught up in a crash -- man, that's tough luck. But make a good pit call, get a quick stop, beat everybody on a restart and win a race? Why, that's all smarts, skill, and savvy, talent on the part of the driver and good work by all the guys back at the shop. You often hear luck blamed when somebody's wrecked car is being towed into the garage. You never hear luck credited when somebody is spraying champagne in Victory Lane.

It's enough to make you wonder what kind of role luck plays at all in a sport where teams spend millions of dollars and employ hundreds of people in an effort to remove every last bit of chance from the equation. Sure, sometimes tires get cut down. But other times they pop because teams are using certain inflation rates or camber settings to help make the car go faster. Sure, sometimes engines blow. But other times a rod or a piston goes awry because somebody back at the engine shop overlooked something. Sure, sometimes drivers get wrecked. But other times they qualify poorly, or they have a slow pit stop that bogs them too deep in traffic. Sure, drivers and NASCAR officials sometimes interpret rules differently. But infractions like speeding on pit road or jumping the restart are certain to draw a penalty.

Just look at what seemed, at the time, to be the ultimate bad beat: the suspension joint failure on Busch's car at New Hampshire in the 2008 Chase opener, a breakdown that hastened the decline of what had been the best team that year. What rotten racing luck. Except, it wasn't. Joe Gibbs Racing officials eventually discovered that somebody got behind in preparation, tried to rush things to make inspection on time, and in the process left something undone. If anything, part durability is better now than it ever has been given advances in metallurgy, how many pieces teams build in-house rather than buying from a vendor, and how closely those pieces are monitored to prevent overuse.

Too often, misfortune has its roots in something much more tangible than simply the whims of the cosmos. It's called bad luck. But more accurately, it's thinly veiled human error. These days, things like engine failures and pit-road mistakes have about as much to do with luck as a Sprint Cup car does with a top fuel dragster.

"Coach doesn't believe in luck at all," Busch said, referring to car owner and former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. "You make your own, I guess he likes to say. When you look at Joey Logano and the way his year started out, it is just terrible. It's nothing that he's done wrong. I guess you could say that you do make your own luck. In Joey's situation from [Bristol] with, I guess it was one of the wheel spacer bolts or screws came loose, so essentially that was a man mistake. Some of our engine malfunctions that we found at the shop were man mistakes. We're essentially making our own luck, I guess."

Jeff Gordon would agree. "I feel like you control your own luck based on having a fast race car, having a solid team, having good communication. Maybe it doesn't change all your luck, but it adds to it greatly," he said.

"I look at Bristol, and we were off. We were off on our setup. We salvaged the best finish we could out of it, and I was proud of that. That's why we finished 14th. I look at Daytona, and where we finished at Daytona, and what I could have done to have prevented getting caught up in that wreck. Some people would look at that as bad luck, I look at it as I could have done a couple things to maybe help. A blown tire at Vegas, I don't know if that's bad luck. I feel like there are things that make a tire blow. Sometimes it's the tire and sometimes it's you contributing to it. Sometimes it's both. I guess I've always looked at it different. I think you can make your luck better by being a really good race team."

And ultimately, that's the best way to shake what's perceived as bad luck. Sure Jimmie Johnson has had a few breaks along the way -- everyone remembers Kevin Harvick's "golden horseshoe" comment after a timely pit exit helped the No. 48 win last season's race in Fontana -- but you don't win five consecutive titles at NASCAR's highest level by being lucky. And for Logano to snap out of his early season slump, it's going to take more than a few ladies at Toyota USA rubbing his head.

"It's getting harder and harder every week, to be honest with you," Logano said. "You keep thinking all that stuff is going to be behind you. ... I usually get over it by Monday morning, I just don't sleep well Sunday night. That's all just a part of it. Eventually, it's all going to go away and we're going to get the finishes we deserve."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.