It takes fast cars and skill beyond skill to be a NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. It also takes a great crew both at the shop and in the pits, along with a sponsor to pony up the huge sum necessary to compete in today’s Cup series. It takes an owner willing to put it all on the line for the Cup and a family supportive of their loved one being gone for a third of the year. It takes parts and pieces and engines and transmissions galore. It takes dedication and passion and strategy.
It also takes the ability to roll with the punches.
There is arguably no clear favorite to take over the head table at the Waldorf Astoria, but it’s a safe bet that whoever does take home the Cup and all the hopes and dreams it represents will have one additional thing on his side: the ability to overcome adversity.
That ability is both intangible and invaluable. Not every team has it, but every team envies the teams that do. It’s the ability to take a flat tire early in a race and turn it into a pit strategy that lands the team back in the top 10. It’s the ability to spin out, not hit anything, and keep going. It’s planning ahead and sacrificing speed early in a race to have it at the end. It’s the team that can bounce back from a bad crash to win the next week.
Should this ability be the deciding factor in the Chase, it’s likely that either Jimmie Johnson or Carl Edwards will walk away with the Cup come November. Just this week, Edwards bounced back from a poor qualifying session at Kansas to nearly win the race. Johnson and his team have been poster children for overcoming adversity for the past three seasons, coming back from a 156-point deficit after a late-race Talladega wreck in 2006 to win the title and turning the tire woes at the Brickyard into a personal advantage. In fact, if the title were decided on the ability to overcome adversity alone, Johnson would be the odds-on favorite.
The flip side of all this is, of course, the Joe Gibbs Racing stable. Most notable is the No. 18 of Kyle Busch, the points leader for most of the season. Until the Chase. Until the pressure. The team’s finish at New Hampshire after an equipment failure wasn’t fatal to their title hopes. Even an engine failure at Dover wasn’t the death knell. But the team didn’t believe in themselves, or at least Busch didn’t believe in them and that, coupled with more engine issues at Kansas, will more than likely be the fatal flaw in what looked like an easy run to the trophy for much of the season.
While overcoming adversity isn’t all attitude, the way the driver, crew chief or entire team reacts to a problem – dropping a cylinder, a crash, a slow pit stop – does make a difference. Again, there is a stark contrast between Johnson’s team at Loudon in September of 2006 and Busch and company this year. In the ’06 Sylvania 300, things went from bad to worse for the No. 48. First, they lost a cylinder early. Then, running mid-pack because of the engine problem, Johnson was caught in a crash with a backmarker and nearly destroyed the car. Though they had to be frustrated, the team brought the car to the garage and worked methodically until they could get it back on track to pick up a couple of spots. Johnson finished 39th, five spots worse than Busch’s finish in the same race this year.
But Busch got frustrated and his team got frustrated. They got the car back out too and did pick up several spots as attrition caught up. But there was nothing methodical about Busch’s driving or his remarks on the radio during the race or afterward. Certainly they weren’t in as bad a position as they made themselves out to be when the race was over.
Perhaps that’s the heart of the problem. There was never an attitude emanating from the No. 18 camp that they could or would turn things around the next week, and it was worse after Dover, when Busch all but conceded the title publicly. To overcome obstacles, first you must believe that you can overcome them – something that championship teams take for granted while other, often very good, teams never quite seem to sort out.
That’s why Johnson and Edwards win races. It’s also a part of why some teams, even those with talented drivers and top-notch equipment, don’t. I question how much real faith Dale Earnhardt Jr. has in his crew chief, and I wonder if this is why, despite having the same equipment as Johnson, who believes wholesale in Chad Knaus, Johnson is in a far better position to win it all at this juncture. I wonder if the one thing that keeps Kevin Harvick from a breakout season is Harvick and Todd Berrier not quite trusting each other. I wonder if, in the end, attitude was more of a factor in Busch’s slump than part failures.
Meanwhile, Edwards and Johnson both have an innate ability to take a seemingly mediocre racecar, put full faith in Bob Osborne and Knaus, respectively, and be in contention at the end. And that’s exactly where they should both be at Homestead-in contention at the end. Whichever one takes home the Cup will probably be the one who bounces back from an ill-handling car, a brush with the wall, or being caught in lapped traffic. Winning isn’t everything – knowing how to turn it around when you don’t win just might be.