By Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
I’m not great with numbers, but I know enough to know that only a fraction of the people on the planet have experienced the feeling of being the very best at what they do.

For those of us who have lived our lives in the mediocre-to-slightly-above-average demographic, this is inconceivable. How does it really feel, even for a single day, to be the richest, the smartest, the prettiest, the funniest or, for our purposes here, the fastest? We can only imagine.

But on the flip side, once you have experienced the ultimate thrill and reached the highest summit, how does it feel to lose it?

The answer, if you were paying close attention to Tony Stewart’s post-race comments at Michigan International Speedway on August 21, is … not good. Very bad, in fact.

Stewart, who hasn’t won a race this season but still has managed to hang on to a spot in the Top 10, basically remarked that if he is unable to truly compete for the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title, he would rather not be in the position of simply taking up space.

"It really doesn't matter whether we make the Chase (for the NASCAR Sprint Cup) or not because we are going to be occupying a spot … that somebody else that actually can run for a championship is going to be trying to take because our stuff is so bad right now,” the Stewart Haas Racing driver-owner said.

As a fan, I always appreciate seeing a combination of fierce competitiveness and good sportsmanship. But as an admirer and supporter of Stewart, this remark made me a little uneasy. It sounded like that familiar groaning sound you make when you can’t finish a crossword puzzle or get the lawn mower to crank. You know you have the tools, but you just can’t quite make them work properly. It’s frustrating.

NASCAR drivers threw out the old “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game that counts” adage a long time ago. Anything less than victory is unacceptable. NASCAR poured fuel on that fire by adding a Wild Card component to the 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup qualification system. A single win can mean the difference between championship contention and the dismal phrase, “Great try.”

Stewart, of course, is a two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and generally considered one of the most gifted drivers in the world. In charmingly self-deprecating speeches at the annual awards ceremony, he has reminded us that he is “the last guy not named Jimmie Johnson” to win the trophy. It was honest, gracious and amusing for a year or two, but as three, four and then five seasons went by, he kissed that line goodbye. It had become resoundingly un-funny.

The youth development organization 4-H boils its recipe for success in life down to four essential ingredients: health, hands, head and heart.

It sounds as if Stewart, and all the other NASCAR starts who are “not named Jimmie Johnson,” may have spent some time in 4-H. They are certainly mindful of their physical health, working with personal trainers and nutritionists to hone the special skills necessary to excel behind the wheel of a stock car, like stamina and hand-eye coordination.

Racers are hands-on people. The days when drivers actually crawled under the hood to work on their own cars may be long gone, but make no mistake; they have their hands on every part of the operation

and are willing to provide whatever is necessary to better their on-track performance. Hard work and diligence are critical components in creating a successful race team.

The head includes the mouth, and speaks for itself. Athletes call this “mental toughness,” the ability to focus and act on the things you can control rather than dwelling on the ones you cannot. How many times have we seen this in action during a race, when a driver is so focused on retaliation for slights real or imagined that he loses sight of the ultimate goal? When you develop the ability to consistently keep your head, then your body – and your car – will go right along with it.

If anyone decided to pen a hit NASCAR rap song, it would probably include the lyrics, “If you can believe, you can achieve.” Perhaps the most important player in this quartet of success is the will to win, the passion for what you do. The state of mind necessary to see a task through to its conclusion, no matter what obstacles you encounter along the way, is something drivers often refer to as “focus.” You could also call it heart.

Just because you aren’t wearing a shiny belt or a sparkly crown or hoisting a cool NASCAR Sprint Cup Series trophy at the moment doesn’t mean you aren’t a champion. At Bristol and Atlanta and Richmond and every other race this season, I fully expect Stewart and any other drivers feeling frustrated and disappointed to buckle up, face up and step up. They are the best at what they do, and they will remember who they are.

Iconic football coach Vince Lombardi went through professional cold spells – one might call them frozen tundra spells -- more than once, and had this to say about it: “I have been wounded but not yet slain. I shall lie here and bleed a while; then I shall rise and fight again. The title of champion may from time to time fall to others more than ourselves. But the heart, the spirit and the soul of champions remains in Green Bay.”

Anybody remember how the Green Bay Packers fared last year?

I’ll bet Tony Stewart can tell you.

Cathy Elliott, the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway, is a syndicated columnist for NASCAR and author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” (for David M. Kinchen's review on this site: