Dustin Long
Monday September 26th, 2011

Two weeks into the Chase a few championship contenders could use a soothing spa treatment to ease their anxiety and rejuvenate their title hopes.

Not Tony Stewart, though. With a statement akin to a televised Facebook status change, Stewart emerged from his winning car at New Hampshire and cryptically proclaimed on ESPN how he had removed some "dead weight'' this week, adding in Twitter-like brevity that "sometimes you have to make adjustments in your life and we did that.'' The new points leader wouldn't elaborate on his statement.

For other drivers, the stress intensified. One can only imagine the voices in their heads based on the voices fans heard during Sunday's race. Jimmie Johnson chided crew chief Chad Knaus' cheerleading. Ryan Newman snapped at his crew chief and then apologized. Kyle Busch grumbled about his car's handling. Kurt Busch bemoaned his title hopes. Kevin Harvick questioned his team's fuel mileage strategy.

The championship isn't about having the best car; it's about having the best mindset from both the driver and crew chief.

In most cases, the comments from drivers on their radio Sunday came amid frustration and soon passed. Still, listening to the chatter -- or silence -- between drivers and teams via a scanner or online provides a titillating view into how Chase drivers handle the pressure of their job.

Not many were happy Sunday.

For the second week in a row, cars ran out of fuel at the end. While it wasn't as many as at Chicagoland in the opening race of the Chase, a few drivers had issues. Clint Bowyer ran out of fuel two laps from the finish, allowing Stewart to take the lead and win. Hamlin's slim title hopes faded when he ran out of fuel and lost a top-10 finish.

The driver who faces the biggest challenge now is Jimmie Johnson. He's 10th in the points -- the lowest he's ever been in the Chase -- after struggling to an 18th-place finish. Unlike the July race at Loudon, when Johnson overcame pit road woes with a magnificent charge to fifth, he did not slice through the field this time.

As Knaus tried to pump up his driver on the radio past the race's midway point, Johnson told him that his cheerleading was annoying and just to "let me do my ... thing.'' Knaus stayed off the radio for a bit as Johnson tried to move up through the field but couldn't get far.

"I think [Knaus] was just being optimistic there about what was left in my back pocket, but my suit doesn't have any back pockets,'' Johnson said about the radio conversation with his crew chief.

The five-time defending champion foretold what would happen in the weeks leading to the Chase. He noted how much more difficult the Chase is on a driver.

"As time goes by and there [are] less races ... the voices start, the thoughts start in your head,'' Johnson said last month after the Michigan race. "You will be challenged in every area as an individual and as a team.''

Brad Keselowski was seated next to Johnson when Johnson made those comments and Keselowski keeps saying he hasn't heard any voices. He even noted on his radio after the engines fired at Chicagoland that he wasn't as nervous as he thought he might be. Keselowski did get upset briefly on his radio in that race but regained his composure and rallied to finish fifth that day.

Then again, maybe the midsummer surge Keselowski has carried into Chase can be explained by the Michigan magic taking place. The Rochester Hills, Mich., native is part of a sports revival in that state. The Detroit Tigers are headed to the playoffs, the Detroit Lions are among the few unbeaten teams left in the NFL and Keselowski's college team, Michigan, is undefeated and ranked 19th nationally. Could this be Keselowski's year? Maybe the only newcomer to the Chase will be the one who doesn't succumb to the pressure.

"Sometimes it's easier to keep it simple when you just don't know any better,'' Keselowski said about handling the stress. "We don't know any better, which might just be an advantage."

The driver who had the most reason to get upset was Jeff Gordon. He ran out of fuel at Chicagoland and NASCAR penalized him when he was speeding on pit road on the final lap. He finished 24th, falling to 11th in the points. He needed a strong run at New Hampshire.

Gordon got it, leading 78 of 229 laps Sunday, but he had to pit early when he ran out of fuel and then had to conserve fuel late to make it to the finish. A possible victory became a fourth-place finish. While Gordon climbed to fifth in the standings, the six points he lost for not winning could have fueled discontent, but he controlled his emotions.

"Somehow we misjudged how far we could go on that second to the last run and we ran out,'' he said. "We didn't feel like we were even close to running out. So it just shows you how important every little detail is.

"We're making great horsepower but we're not getting good fuel mileage. But Tony has figured out a way to do it so you have to give those guys credit. They have the same engines we have and we have got to do a better job at it. I've got to do a better job at it.''

With eight more races left, he likely will have more chances at fuel mileage finishes. Of course, there are few things a driver likes less than such races.

"Every week for me, two races a weekend for the last seven years, it's go as fast as you can all the time,'' Carl Edwards said. "Win! Win! Win! Go! Go! Go! And then for [the crew chief] to say, 'Hey, you've got to save ... fuel,' you have to shut everything else out and not worry about the win and not worry about racing. It's a totally different mindset.

"I'm telling you, if you put heart-rate monitors, blood pressure stuff on the crews and the drivers, it goes through the roof.''

Good thing the series is heading to Dover this weekend. The track has a hotel/casino next to it that provides spa treatments, which according to the hotel's website, can "reduce stress and soothe muscle tension in peaceful massage therapy rooms with tranquil music, aromatic essential oils and the healing hands of certified massage therapists.''

Now, won't that make everybody feel better?

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found at here.

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