When it comes to matters of the mind, NASCAR teams will go to great lengths to psyche out opponents.
Trash talk? That’s for amateurs. Buzzing another driver on the track? Usually that does more damage than good.
With the battle between Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson coming down to three final events, the head games have escalated in the garage. But not to the degree you might think — at least off the track.
Yes, the rap music is still blaring from the No. 2 Penske Racing stall. No, there is no pre-Hair Club for Men picture of crew chief Chad Knaus hanging from the tool box. Yes, there are faux wireless systems allegedly downloading data from Keselowski’s electronic control unit back to Penske Racing. No, Johnson did not remain in his car after his qualifying lap for 34 minutes simply because he was “superstitious.”
“It doesn’t mean anything, but may as well,” Johnson said. “At this point in the season, you have to pull out the stops.”
There are head games and there are head games. But the top two Sprint Cup championship contenders appear to be elevating their on-track games to the next level. After regaining the points lead by two, Johnson bested time trials on Friday with a lap of 191.076 mph. Keselowski posted the eighth-fastest lap, 0.230 of a second slower than the No. 48 car.
On Saturday, Keselowski topped the speed chart during second practice and laid down the best 10 consecutive lap average of 180.665 mph. During Happy Hour, the Blue Deuce jumped to the No. 1 spot again.
While the only results that matter are on Sunday, Johnson uses the entire weekend to crescendo into the main event. Starting from the pole always helps, and Johnson made it clear that his time of 191.076 mph “definitely exceeded expectations.”
"It’s funny, because when you run really well, you build confidence in your own head and around your team about how things went,” Johnson said. “And we’ll certainly do that in the No. 48 (team) if we qualified 10th, we would have went, ‘Hey, that met expectations of what we thought we’d get. Good job.’ Twenty-fifth would be, ‘Hey, it’s just qualifying.’ So, long story short, every team will put a spin on it to help themselves and to help get over it.
“Truthfully, if you’re in the top 10 each week, you eliminate so many more issues on the racetrack. You have a good pit-stall pick, decent air, and that’s really the goal we are all shooting for. Getting poles are pretty special, and we got a good one (on Friday) and in a timely point in the season. Us racers will find a way to put the spin on it we need for any given situation.”
That wasn’t so easy for Keselowski last week at Martinsville. He could tell some of his crew was bummed after his 32nd-place qualifying effort. The intuitive driver realized the best way to revitalize the team was by taking the situation into his hands. Although Keselowski lost the points lead to Johnson, who won the race, he earned the respect of his crew by soldiering back to a sixth-place finish.
“Each and every person is different in how they react,” Keselowski said. “I think last week was a big shot in the arm because I sense a few guys were a little bit demoralized after qualifying. Then to have the effort that we had in the race, I think that confidence of knowing that we can overcome almost any obstacle has shown in the mindset of everyone that we have on the team to that they feel pretty good.”
Overcoming obstacles on a consistent basis is what has separated the No. 48 team from other contenders over the last decade. Through solid preparation, Keselowski’s crew has been able to persevere through adversity as well.
As the races wind down, mental toughness of the drivers will come into play every bit as much as the competitiveness of the cars and pit crews. Although the reputation of the No. 48 can be intimidating in its own right, Keselowski and the Penske squad show no signs of backing down.
BIDING HIS TIME
For Trevor Bayne, 2013 can’t come fast enough.
After running a partial season in both Sprint Cup and the Nationwide Series, Bayne will replace defending NNS champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the No. 6 Ford and run for the title. Bayne will also continue his part-time role with the Wood Brothers in the venerable No. 21 Ford.
For Bayne, any seat time is a bonus as he prepares for next season. He will start Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 seventh, but on Saturday night, the 21-year-old was putting his down time to good use with his future team.
“I think we can build some momentum, but for Nationwide it is hard because I am not out there with those guys,” Bayne said. “I can go sit on the box and listen to Mike Kelley and how he works with Stenhouse, and that team can build their confidence in me by watching me run here. If I am running well, that transfers right over. I need to get as much experience as I can this season and try to carry that over to next year.”
9 — Texas Sprint Cup wins for Jack Roush, the most in the series. Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick motorsports each have three victories.
3 — Texas Sprint Cup wins for Carl Edwards, more than any other driver on the tour.
5 — Nationwide Series wins for Kevin Harvick at Texas, ties Kyle Busch.
Johanna Long rolled off 21st on Saturday night in the Nationwide race. But her car lasted just 56 laps before she was in the garage and finished 36th.
“The shifter fell off. I don’t know . . . the shifter handle fell off; it broke in half.”