NASCAR: Mental toughness needed

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 16, 2008

By Jenna Fryer
Assoicated Press
LOUDON, N.H. ó The winner of the Chase for the championship will need fast cars, flawless pit stops and solid strategy. Heíll also need a strong dose of mental toughness.
Based on Sundayís opening round of the 10-race sprint to the title, Greg Biffle has the confidence to make a run at the championship. Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Well, those two title favorites have a lot to prove.
Biffle, a long shot to claim his first Sprint Cup title, left New Hampshire International Speedway with a surprise victory. His bravado seeped through his words, particularly when he described the winning move on two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.
iI donít want to brag,î he said, ibut it was a textbook pass.î
Seeded ninth in the standings and riding a 33-race winless streak one week ago, iThe Biffî heads to Round 2 of the Chase ranked third in the points and certain heíll be a player in how this title is decided.
Itís not so clear, anymore, whether Busch or Earnhardt can climb back into the mix. And it has nothing to do with their cars, and everything to do with their mental state.
Busch had a rough first Chase race, starting from the pole but sinking quickly to the back of the field when a bolt broke on his sway bar. It was all Busch could do to keep his car off the wall as he struggled to make it to a lap 35 competition caution that gave his team a chance to diagnose the problem.
Repairs and a procedural penalty dropped Busch two laps off the pace, and a later accident ensured a long, miserable day for the regular-season points leader. He finished a mortifying 34th, and that cozy lead heíd taken into the Chase ó he was the top seed, with as much as an 80-point cushion over most of the contenders ó instantly evaporated.
Busch is now eighth in the standings and trails co-leaders Johnson and Carl Edwards by a head-banging 74 points.
iItís unbelievable how fast you can fall,î Biffle said.
It is indeed, and itís unknown how Busch will handle the adversity.
Heís not faced much of it this season, reeling off a series-high eight Cup wins and adding another 10 in the Nationwide and Trucks Series. It gave him a swagger and air of invincibility not lost on others.
But how he felt following Sundayís debacle is unknown. He didnít stick around to take questions, behavior many deemed unprofessional for a future champion.
Busch isnít fragile, but at 23 years old heís still learning the appropriate way to deal with the ups and downs of big-time sports. Letting one bad race fester will certainly sink his title hopes, so itís critical that Busch rebound from this by the time he moves on to Dover International Speedway this weekend.
His former boss thinks Busch will bounce back.
iKyle is mature enough to handle it,î Rick Hendrick said. iHeís going to drive the wheels off of it at Dover. I donít think this is going to hurt him at all. It just might make him more of a bulldog.î
Hendrick knows a thing or two about driver psyche, particularly after counseling Earnhardt through portions of Sundayís race.
Earnhardt drove to the front about midway through and seemed to set to contend. But when a bad set of tires cost him track position, Earnhardt appeared to unravel on his radio. Hendrick quickly took the mic to settle his driver.
iYou got a bad set of tires. It happens,î Hendrick said. iYou can do this. Talk to everybody about what the car is doing. We can make the right adjustments.î
An irritated Earnhardt wasnít convinced.
iTake it out on those guys in front of you,î Hendrick advised.
Earnhardt wound up in fifth place, leaving him tied for fourth in the standings, 50 points behind the leaders. But it wasnít the win he wanted, and when he felt victory slipping away he almost let it defeat the entire effort.
iOnce Iím on the ledge, itís hard to get me off of it,î Earnhardt said. iI donít know if even Rickís got what it takes to do that. I just said what I had to say to appease him, make him think I was calm.
iI like getting riled up. It motivates me. I drive better when Iím ticked off, and racing usually ticks you off.î
Hendrick doesnít necessarily subscribe to that theory, and he wants Earnhardt calm in the heat of the moment.
iIf you let things get to you, you will not win this Chase,î Hendrick said. iItís just like a basketball game. Guys lead, lead, lead and then choke. You canít choke. Thatís what Iím trying to get them not to do.î