IN THE PITS: Chase winner needs mental toughness

Published 5:04 pm Monday, September 15, 2008

LOUDON, N.H. – The winner of the Chase for the championship will need fast cars, flawless pit stops and solid strategy. He’ll also need a strong dose of mental toughness.

Based on Sunday’s 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.

“I don’t want to brag,” he said, “but it was a textbook pass.”

Seeded ninth in the standings and riding a 33-race winless streak one week ago, “The Biff” heads to Round 2 of the Chase ranked third in the points and certain he’ll be a player in how this title is decided.

It’s 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 he’d taken into the Chase — he was the top seed, with as much as an 80-point cushion over most of the contenders — instantly evaporated.

Busch is now eighth in the standings and trails co-leaders Johnson and Carl Edwards by a head-banging 74 points.

“It’s unbelievable how fast you can fall,” Biffle said.

It is indeed, and it’s unknown how Busch will handle the adversity.

He’s 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 Sunday’s debacle is unknown. He didn’t stick around to take questions, behavior many deemed unprofessional for a future champion.

Busch isn’t fragile, but at 23 years old he’s 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 it’s 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.

“Kyle is mature enough to handle it,” Rick Hendrick said. “He’s going to drive the wheels off of it at Dover. I don’t think this is going to hurt him at all. It just might make him more of a bulldog.”

Hendrick knows a thing or two about driver psyche, particularly after counseling Earnhardt through portions of Sunday’s 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.

“You got a bad set of tires. It happens,” Hendrick said. “You can do this. Talk to everybody about what the car is doing. We can make the right adjustments.”

An irritated Earnhardt wasn’t convinced.

“Take it out on those guys in front of you,” Hendrick advised.

Earnhardt wound up in fifth place, leaving him tied for fourth in the standings, 50 points behind the leaders. But it wasn’t the win he wanted, and when he felt victory slipping away he almost let it defeat the entire effort.

“Once I’m on the ledge, it’s hard to get me off of it,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know if even Rick’s got what it takes to do that. I just said what I had to say to appease him, make him think I was calm.

“I like getting riled up. It motivates me. I drive better when I’m ticked off, and racing usually ticks you off.”

Hendrick doesn’t necessarily subscribe to that theory, and he wants Earnhardt calm in the heat of the moment.

“If you let things get to you, you will not win this Chase,” Hendrick said. “It’s just like a basketball game. Guys lead, lead, lead and then choke. You can’t choke. That’s what I’m trying to get them not to do.”