“Adversity is a fact of life. It can’t be controlled. What we can control is how we react to it.” – Anonymous
Things can change quickly in the landscape of professional sports, and no one knows that better than Hall of Fame football coach Joe Gibbs. His race team spent the first six months of 2008 threatening to rewrite the history books on several modern-era NASCAR records; instead, they’ll be spending the next seven weeks dealing with the aftermath of a historic collapse.
To say he’s got a lot of work ahead these next few days would be an understatement. Those words may be easy to write; but for this multi-car giant of an operation, it looks increasingly harder to accept.
Indeed, the two-time Washington Redskins coach is known for his ability to motivate; but after what we’ve seen the first three weeks of the postseason, he’ll need every ounce of energy he’s got left. His team entered the postseason as the winningest organization in Sprint Cup this year, armed and ready to rumble. There was the No. 1 seed and odds-on favorite Kyle Busch, everyone’s favorite darkhorse in Tony Stewart and the man with momentum in Denny Hamlin. On the cusp of singlehandedly powering Toyota to a manufacturers’ title in just their second season, the next 10 weeks were supposed to be nothing less than a championship coronation for this crowd.
Too bad NASCAR never approved the script.
Instead, Gibbs finds himself dealing with the worst of worst-case scenarios: his three-car team occupies the last three spots in the Chase. Hamlin sits 10th, Stewart 11th and Busch dead last, the trio a combined 810 points behind current leader Jimmie Johnson. The team’s “bad boy” image has been building on the “Bad” part, dutifully reducing themselves to playoff rubble in a little less than 1,000 laps. Their statistics since the Chase began aren’t just mind-boggling, they’re downright depressing: six starts, zero top-five finishes, three DNFs and just six laps led combined. Unless there’s a turnaround of miraculous proportions, a JGR driver will fail to win the title for the third straight year – the longest drought for them this decade.
“It’s nothing like we’re going to need if we’re going to compete for the championship,” said Hamlin of his equipment after filing the organization’s best finish at Kansas – 11th. “[But] I’ve had bad luck all year. I’m used to it.”
Indeed, Hamlin’s confidence had already been crushed with several mechanical problems in July and August, ones which left him on the cusp of missing the playoffs and pulling out the “unprepared” card in a message to his team. But his latest page out of Eeyore’s playbook pales in comparison with what’s happening with the No. 18 and Busch.
After fighting a mechanical problem for the third straight week – faulty fuel pressure caused the engine to run at less than full song – Busch finished 28th to drop another 101 points behind leader Johnson. It’s the third straight race he’s lost that much or more over his championship competitors, on the wrong end of an eye-popping 351-point swing that’s dropped him from 40 ahead of the rest of the field to 311 behind. Things are so bad that the moody 23-year-old has done what was previously thought to be impossible; make an unforgiving fan base of millions actually feel somewhat sorry for him.
Not that he’s doing himself any favors in the public relations department.
“I think it’s pretty self-explanatory to everybody out there,” was Busch’s enlightening quote to describe his feelings following the third straight week of hell. Once mentioned in the same breath as legends Jeff Gordon and Richard Petty – it was thought he’d shatter their record of 13 wins in a modern-era season – the only reward Busch’ll win these days is, “Worst Actor In A Drama/Miniseries That Ends In Tragedy.”
The way the points leader has chose to handle this scenario is tragic, indeed; rather than roll with the punches, Busch is rolling down a slippery slope, crashing to earth amidst a mix of entitlement and ego that makes you wonder if he’d mount a points comeback even under the old system (Busch would be 124 behind Carl Edwards with seven races left). Add in Hamlin’s lack of self-esteem and Stewart’s roller-coaster litany of problems, and we’ve got a three-driver lineup in need of a serious pep rally. And if you really want to go for that extra kick in the pants, let’s not forget about young Joey Logano, who’s looked decidedly not-so-special in his first two starts on the Sprint Cup level. According to several who’ve listened intently, one check on the new kid’s radio channel is all the evidence you’ll need to find he’s not handling the transition from first to last entirely all that well (average finish in his first two Cup starts: 35.5).
No question, JGR’s been beat up more in the last month than they have in quite sometime – and in some ways, it’s been justified. But how do you stop the bleeding when your team’s initial attitude lies somewhere between “woe is me” and “what the hell?” For if they stopped to smell the roses, there’s a silver lining in all their struggles; unlike other playoff collapses in stick ‘n’ ball sports (see: New York Mets on Sunday), these three teams must keep pressing on, even though the goals for the season are already out of reach.
That seems cruel… but it’s actually compassionate, depending on how you look at things. Right now, there’s still time to turn the frustration of the playoffs into a forward march towards ’09 preparation, to let the stench of defeat fade amongst the building blocks of late-season wins. Yes, the title may be out of reach, but momentum is but a race away as this team could easily right the ship and start headed back towards the land of respectability.
Of course, that’s easier said than done.
“If we can keep it running, we should be in good shape,” said Busch’s crew chief Steve Addington about Talladega next week – a less-than-ringing endorsement of his boys back at the shop.
How about Stewart? He left the track without comment, a broken splitter matching nicely with a broken spirit.
And as for Eey… er, Hamlin?
“A top five in points is about all we can do,” he said when asked about goals for the rest of the year.
That’s a start. It may not be the Christmas present this team asked for – or expected – but it’s still a nice gift nonetheless.
Now, we’ll see if the team has the attitude adjustment needed to go and get it.