Mind games run rampant at Bristol

8/20/2010 - NASCAR

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- They should move one of the patio couches from the roof of the new media center at Bristol Motor Speedway downstairs because drivers are being psychoanalyzed about every subject relevant to the Chase and racing at this half-mile track where tempers flare.

Should four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson be the favorite to win this year's playoff? Or should it be points leader Kevin Harvick? Should Joey Logano have said Ryan Newman raced him too hard last week at Michigan when the two had to be separated by NASCAR officials afterward?

Will drivers be more aggressive Saturday as they have the past few Bristol night races, or will they be laid-back protecting their points position? Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. putting forth the effort to succeed?

What's the true personality of a driver, what we see in the car or outside of it?

"Man, we're getting into deep psychology," said Jeff Gordon, the first driver put on the spot. "I might have to go see my therapist after today."

A lot of other drivers may need to join him after Saturday night's race.

Let's address the questions one at a time. The bandwagon is growing to make Harvick the favorite for the Chase, particularly after last week's win that was his first on an intermediate track in seven years.

Even Johnson's on board.

"I do think those guys should be considered the favorites," he said.

Johnson says this even though his position in the points race -- fifth place, 386 behind Harvick -- isn't much different than it was the past three years. Remember, Johnson was in sixth place, 512 back, in 2007. He was third and 302 back in 2008 and third and 303 back in 2009.

The only time he had the points lead at this point during his four-year title run was 2006, when he was 58 up on Matt Kenseth.

So all this talk about a slump -- Johnson has only one top-10 in the past six races and an average finish of 21.3 during that span -- doesn't mean much. Gordon and Harvick understand.

"You never count the 48 out," Gordon said. "We've seen them in the last four years show weaknesses at times during the season, but they always seem to rebound when it really counts. They step it up in a way you can't compete with.

"Until they don't do that, you've got to keep them as the favorite."

Ditto, says Harvick.

"Until somebody completes the deal and knocks them off, they have to be [favored] because they've won the last four," he said.

As for Logano and Newman, one needs to understand that Newman is known as one of the hardest drivers to pass on the circuit. He races everyone hard no matter what the circumstance in most cases.

Logano was correct when he said even Newman's team owner, Tony Stewart, has complained about this. Where Logano was wrong was the way he phrased his response.

Let Gordon explain since he's already on the couch.

"How did I get thrown into this?" Gordon said. "I haven't had any issues with Newman in a long time."

You did, so continue.

"What Joey was saying is it's one of those things where you can think it and you can talk to your friends about it; you don't say it on camera," Gordon said. "And the reason you don't say that on camera is because people don't get that."

In other words, everybody races everybody hard, it's just when you choose to do it and don't use it as an excuse because drivers are supposed to race hard.

"It's like a driver code," Gordon said. "But it's not about racing too hard. It's just about how you're racing one another."

Now we move to analyzing Bristol and the mentality drivers have for this race. The Chase seemingly has worked against the track the past few years. Drivers contending for one of the 12 playoff spots seemingly have been overly cautious, afraid of getting too aggressive for fear of taking a big hit in points.

Drivers with no shot to contend have been careful not to be blamed for hurting somebody else's chances.

But with all but one spot basically locked up, one could assume there will be a more "have at it" mentality. Perhaps Bristol will return to not simply the fastest half-mile in the world, but the most action-packed as well.

There's really no reason to hold back, is there? Harvick has the regular-season points race all but locked up, 293 ahead of Gordon. His only motivation the next three races is to win, to make up the two-victory, 20-point deficit in bonus points to Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

The bottom of the field is all but set as well. The only real battle is between Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin, separated by 35 points for the 12th spot. Fourteenth-place Ryan Newman is 103 back, and the difference between 11th and 13th is a fat 193 points.

It wasn't that way a year ago. The difference between seventh-place Juan Pablo Montoya and 13th-place Brian Vickers was 108 points. The difference between Martin in 12th and Vickers was a mere 12.

You couldn't really blame competitors seemingly for driving on egg shells, afraid to make a mistake for fear of going from contender to pretender.

Bristol is a tough place on you, not only physically and tough on your car, but also mentally. It can drive you crazy.

-- Kevin Harvick

Johnson still contends he can't throw caution to the wind, saying he really needs a top-5 to get back on track and secure his position. The other side of that argument goes back to what Gordon said regarding Newman and Logano. To suggest all aren't trying their best every week is a bit ludicrous.

"I understand the line of questioning and I agree with that philosophy, but honestly when you're out there in the car every weekend as a crew chief, on the box or as a driver, we're doing everything we can to win every weekend," Gordon said. "I guess if it came down to the white flag and I thought I could just banzai two guys on the apron and knock them out of the way to win the race and be guaranteed the win ... would I do that? Maybe.

"Other than that, I'm doing everything I can inside the car."

As for Earnhardt, don't think he wants to be in the Chase any less than anybody else. And don't think he's not trying hard. The effort is there, as Johnson said, but the results haven't matched that.

We could discuss this for hours, but it would take more than one session and likely more than one couch.

As for the personality of a driver inside and outside of the car, that's particularly pertinent at Bristol. You'll see the most mild-mannered person lose his cool in these tight confines.

This weekend we could see lingering resentment from Kurt Busch, who was bumped out of the way by race winner Johnson here in March. In case you forgot, this is where Busch said he'd rather lose to anybody but the No. 48 and tried to stir it up even more by saying the fans felt the same way.

We could see Newman and Logano continue the feud they started at Michigan.

"Bristol is a tough place on you, not only physically and tough on your car, but also mentally," Harvick said. "It can drive you crazy."

So does that mean drivers are crazy, that their true personality comes out here more than anywhere else?

"I always like to think of the racetrack as kind of your alter ego," Gordon said. "Bristol only intensifies it."

Good thing they have couches now.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.