Gamesmanship not what it used to be

Updated: November 18, 2004, 11:39 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | Special to ESPN.com

It's a story that brings a smile to Richard Childress' face. A big smile.

It's a story he could tell over and over again; one recounting a classic moment as he -- a retired driver finding success as a car owner -- and a hard-charger named Dale Earnhardt worked their way to another title.

Earnhardt was heading into the 1990 Winston Cup finale at Atlanta with a slim lead over Mark Martin who, as is still the case, was driving a Roush Racing Ford. Desperately wanting to win the championship, Ford arranged to try everything imaginable to aid Jack Roush in his team's quest.

So the team didn't just test Roush Racing cars, but Martin also drove a Thunderbird borrowed from Robert Yates Racing. Childress and Earnhardt knew about this and figured they'd show up at the test session, too.

Even though they had no real need to test.

Turning laps wasn't the goal, though. Getting inside the heads of Martin, Roush and the rest of that team was the task at hand.

Yes, there are times when the head games off the track are just as vital as the racing on it when it comes to determining a champion.

So if one of his three teams were in the hunt as the Chase for the Nextel Cup boils down to its final event, would Childress still be messing with his opponents?

What do you think?

How they can win outright
Kurt Busch, leader: Will win the championship if he wins the Ford 400. He can also guarantee the title if he finishes second and earns five bonus points for leading at least one lap.
Jimmie Johnson, trails by 18: Can win the championship if he wins the race and leads the most laps (for the maximum 190 points), and Busch finishes second without leading a lap, or finishes third but doesn't lead the most laps, or finishes fourth or lower.
Jeff Gordon, trails by 21: Can win the championship if he wins the race and accrues the maximum 10 bonus points; Busch also must finish third or lower and not lead a lap, or finish fourth or lower and lead a lap, or finish fifth or lower and lead the most laps.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., trails by 72: Can win the championship if he wins the race and accrues the maximum 10 bonus points; he also needs Busch to finish 15th or lower and not lead a lap, Johnson to finish 10th or lower and not lead a lap and Gordon to finish ninth or lower and not lead a lap.
Mark Martin, trails by 82 points: Can win the championship if he wins the race and accrues the maximum 10 bonus points; he also needs Busch to finish 19th or lower and not lead a lap, Johnson to finish 13th or lower and not lead a lap and Gordon to finish 12th or lower and not lead a lap. Earnhardt Jr.'s finish wouldn't matter as long as he doesn't lead a lap. If Martin wins the race and Earnhardt Jr. finishes second and leads the most laps, the two would be tied and Earnhardt Jr. would win the tiebreaker (number of '04 wins). Source: NASCAR

"Hell, if I was there, I know I would be playing head games," Childress said. "That's what it's all about. When the opportunity is there, you've just got to use it."

Just like he and Earnhardt did so successfully back in '90.

"The best one ever was when we went to Atlanta and Jack was running Mark and he was using Yates cars and engines and everything," Childress said. "We pulled in there and ran that morning and put four left-side tires on and went out there and put a number up we knew they wasn't about to touch."

Left-side tires normally are built with a softer rubber compound than right-side tires, meaning they have more grip and are faster. A car with four left-side tires will easily dust a car running with the correct tires mounted on both sides of the car.

"We were really, really fast. Then we loaded the car up at lunchtime and went on over to Alabama hunting," Childress said. "We just stopped [in Atlanta] to do a thing. We was just on our way to go hunting. We made us a few fast laps, loaded it up and left."

That was one of Childress' most successful gambits. Things didn't work quite as well a year ago as Kevin Harvick was trying to track down Matt Kenseth, yet another Roush driver. Kenseth, though, had a comfortable lead throughout so even when the likes of Harvick cut into it a year ago, the dent was only so big.

But when it was learned that Roush Racing was already gearing up to sell merchandise commemorating Kenseth's title, Harvick tried to use that as motivation, but Kenseth was unbeatable.

So what's next for Childress?

"You can't tell all your secrets," he said. "You might want to use them again someday."

In a way, it's almost a shame that Childress doesn't have a driver in the fray heading into Homestead. After all, even the likes of Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin are trying to mess with each other; but they're doing such a quiet job that no one's really noticing.

To be sure, there have been subtle comments, with Johnson saying he's content to let someone else lead the standings until after the final event, but there's been nothing regarded as a stroke of genius.

In Phoenix, as he was hoping for a fourth straight win, Johnson was asked if he thought he'd gotten into Busch's head. This, though, was a racing-related question and not the result of any off-track shenanigans.

"I hope so. Kurt is a great driver. He's strong mentally," Johnson said. "I hope I've been able to get in everyone's head. You never know how that works out. But this sport is humbling. As soon as you get cocky, the sport will saw you off at the knees. So I'm just worrying about my game and doing all that I can do. We're just going to go race to race and see what happens."

But now there's just one race left. So the better question might be whether or not Busch can get inside Johnson's head.

If successful, it'll take some doing. Johnson says he doesn't even go down some of the avenues where successful mind games have been played in the past. Years ago, a brash Darrell Waltrip used to take advantage of the media as he attempted to annoy veteran Cale Yarborough. When Yarborough responded, a rivalry was born and Waltrip ended up known as "Jaws" -- a nickname that some would say is still accurate as Waltrip's turned his personality into a broadcasting career.

Johnson, though, says he pays little attention to what's written or talked about these days.

"Jeff [Gordon] and I were talking about that [recently and] neither of us really worry about it or read the papers and follow what's being written or said about any of us or about ourselves," Johnson said. "When you turn on the TV one day, everyone says nice things about you and you want to believe that. And then on another day, somebody says something you don't like. And then you're mad. To avoid all of that emotion, I just don't read anything or pay attention to what's going on. So somebody could be heckling me pretty good right now and I wouldn't even know it."

Alas, Johnson doesn't appear to be missing out on much as things are relatively quiet. Maybe that will change at Homestead when the five contenders hold a joint press conference on Friday.

On a conference call featuring the five drivers, Earnhardt Jr. was asked if he's feeling much pressure heading into Homestead 72 points behind Busch. His response was honest considering the situation, though there's at least a sense of hope he might have learned a bit about turning things up a notch from his father.

"I don't really feel a lot of pressure because, I mean, I think if I'm Kurt, I would be really nervous," Junior said. "Because he's in the situation where it's really basically up to him and his team to win or lose it. We just have to go out there and race as hard as we can and throw everything we got at it and see what happens. You know, that's really not hard at all.

"Kurt has to look ahead and look behind at the same time. That's got to be really tough. I'm sure he's going to be glad when it's all over with. So will the rest of us. But it's been a lot of fun. It's been an honor to race with all these guys, and to be in the mix. I never even anticipated getting this far in my career. "

So not exactly vintage, but a start for Earnhardt Jr. Told at Phoenix that Johnson said he'd rather be chasing down the leader than holding the lead, Busch didn't seem fazed in the slightest.

"It's much easier to be the points leader," Busch said. "And if they were in this position, I'm sure that they would say that it's tougher to be in second. So, there's that game that they think that they've got to challenge us with, and we know that on the racetrack is where the points are added up."

Come Sunday, they'll be added up for the final time.

Gentlemen, start your head games.

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.

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