ON NASCAR: Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Is a Stress Test

By Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing may well be the most definitive stress test in professional sports. 

Not to take anything away from the stick-and-ball guys, but stock car racing is one humdinger of a pressure point, anxiety-ridden by its very nature. Throw in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and the angst-ometer goes off the charts. 

Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series crew chief Chad Knaus said in a recent interview that the 10-race Chase is the most stressful time of the season, and it gets worse every year. Not that he needed to be asked. Knaus isn’t given to verbal histrionics when things aren’t going to his satisfaction during races, but his body language speaks for itself. We have all grown accustomed to the sight of him sitting atop the war wagon in Jimmie Johnson’s pit box, coiled so tightly he resembles a cobra ready to strike. Again. 

You can see stress, and you can hear it, too. On the Wednesday evening after winning the Chase-opening race at Chicagoland Speedway, Tony Stewart’s crew chief Darian Grubb told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Claire B. Lang that he had worked in the shop that day until 7 p.m., had then talked with various media and was just hoping to make it upstairs in time to give his 3-year-old son a bath. It was almost 9 p.m. Business as usual, in other words.

Stress isn’t always bad. In small doses, it can help you perform well under pressure and motivate you to do your best. NASCAR fans are notoriously empathetic; sometimes it seems we get almost as stressed out during races as our favorite drivers do. As with almost everything else in life, in order to understand how to deal with this condition, it is important to identify some of its causes and effects. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, one of the primary causes of stress is a hectic lifestyle. 

Does a deadline at work get you tied up in knots? Think how NASCAR drivers must feel. The equation of sponsor obligations plus physical training plus media availability, multiplied by strapping into a 3,400-pound machine to compete wheel to wheel at high speed with 42 other drivers for 400 miles or more 10 months a year, divided by family, team and travel time, equals the potential for Guinness World Records in both the biggest headache and largest ulcer categories.

Relationship problems are another stress inducer. 

In our world, this might include things like leaving the cap off the toothpaste or tossing clothes on the floor instead of in the hamper. In NASCAR terms, leaving someone’s car in the wall while you sail on past or tossing an ill-advised verbal or physical punch after a race really isn’t all that uncommon. In terms of real-life relationship issue comparisons, however, it is rather like the difference between lightning and lightning bugs. 

Mayo lists irritability and angry outbursts as two of the effects of stress. 

In our ordinary lives, we might make snarky comments or rail against the recent Facebook changes when the emotional rubber meets the road. In NASCAR, on the other hand, Kurt Busch’s radio “rants” during races, when the car – or his competitors – aren’t meeting his performance standards, have become legendary. Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski are among the drivers who have been known to make their own brand of snarky statements by knocking another car, whether occupied or not, out of their way when they were feeling a little irritated. 

Suggested methods for stress relief include calling a friend “just to talk things through,” enjoying a soothing cup of herbal tea, or listening to classical music. (Pause for a moment to envision Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Kevin Harvick doing any of these things, then continue reading when you stop laughing.)

Perhaps the true key to overcoming stress involves maintaining your poise while dealing with it. A good recent example is Tony Stewart. Stewart, who was so frustrated with what he considered a lackluster “regular season” performance that he said he would rather not fill a spot in the Chase when an actual contender could have it instead, promptly went out and won the first race in the championship series. 

Stewart’s body language and tone of voice after the race were those of a completely different driver, elitist rather than defeatist. Nine remaining races meant plenty of stress still lay ahead, but for the moment, he had put the beat-down on it. The victory catapulted him from ninth to second in the driver standings, giving merit to the notion that the higher the wall, the greater the satisfaction in climbing it. 

To four-time champion Jeff Gordon, on the other hand, who started the race third in the driver standings and finished in the 11th position, that wall probably appeared to have grown a few feet higher. 

Mohandas Gandhi died in 1948 and therefore never had the opportunity to be a NASCAR fan. That’s just as well; the man who espoused the belief that there is more to life than increasing its speed probably wouldn’t have embraced the “faster is better” philosophy of stock car racing. 

But perhaps Gandhi and NASCAR did have at least one common concept regarding the secret of stress relief, considering one of his most famous statements: “A small body of determined spirits, fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission, can alter the course of history.”

That sounds an awful lot like a successful race team to me. 
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