My Brain on NASCAR: Game, Set, Match?

By Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott

When the expectations of winning are decreased, do the chances of winning proportionally increase? Martina Navratilova thinks so. In fact, she believes that Jimmie Johnson is a very dangerous man.



Navratilova, a longtime spokesperson for AARP, visited Texas Motor Speedway (TMS) on Nov. 4, where she hung out with fellow senior-population advocate Jeff Gordon. In a pre-race interview, Navratilova remarked that sometimes the end of a winning streak can be a good thing, because it takes the pressure off. \



The true, and truly honest, fan would have to concede that Navratilova is the greatest female tennis player of all time. She won 18 Grand Slam singles titles and is one of just three women to have accomplished a career “boxed set,” winning the Grand Slam in singles, women's doubles, and mixed doubles. She reached the singles finals at Wimbledon nine consecutive times, and won 74 consecutive matches.



Yes, Martina Navratilova knows a thing or two about streaks.



She also knows plenty about their aftermath. In a pre-race interview at Texas, Navratilova remarked that sometime a loss is almost a relief, because then the pressure is off. She made a winning streak sound like a long war, where too much worry about the end result can erode the focus on success individual battles.



Jimmie Johnson currently has a streak of sorts going, sitting on the pole and winning races number seven and eight in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Some feel that while other drivers are scrambling around like desperate souls who are running late and fighting clogged Interstate traffic on their first day at a new job, Johnson has already switched on his cruise control.



But he is quick to correct them, because he knows better. While Johnson has been considered the lion king for the better part of a decade now, he knows there is one particular young lion out there that is aggressively sniffing around the throne; Brad Keselowski is hot on the five-time champion’s bumper in the driver standings with two races remaining. “The gloves are off and it’s bare-knuckle fighting,” Johnson said after the race at Texas.



TMS is pretty consistent about providing an exciting show for fans, and the AAA Texas 500 was no exception. Johnson started up front and led most of the race, but three cautions in the final 20 laps kept the field tight, and the result was far from a foregone conclusion.



There’s not a lot of room for biting and scratching during a race, but a late-lap caution did include a bit of gesturing. Johnson and Keselowski had driven the fine line between competing and crashing prior to the yellow flag, and Johnson expressed his opinion by way of a single finger. (Get those minds back on the sidewalk, you guys; it was his index finger.)



“Yeah, I just pointed at them. I just wanted him to use his head. There is no sense in taking us both out in the process, “Johnson said. “If he was taking me out, you can count on the fact that I would have been on the gas and trying to take him with me.  You know, it just doesn't need to come down to that … The cool thing about it is we walked right up to that line, got right to the edge, and then it stopped. He showed a very classy move coming to victory lane and shaking my hand afterwards, too.”



Johnson leads Keselowski by only seven points as the Cup Series heads to Phoenix for the penultimate Chase race. Johnson has four wins at the desert track, and finished fourth back in February. So far, Keselowski has yet to hoist a checkered flag at the 1-mile oval.



Martina Navratilova once shared the secret of her success by explaining, “I just concentrate on concentrating.” Jimmie Johnson is a pragmatic kind of guy. Knowing full well that it doesn’t take very long at all to count to seven, and one bad break can change everything, he has been very careful not to come across as too cocky or confident, concentrating very hard on the fact that it isn’t over until it’s over.


Or is it?



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NASCAR columnist Cathy Elliott is the author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” Visit her online

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