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Cathy Elliott: Go inside the minds of a Chase driver

Published 1:05am Saturday, October 3, 2009

I have never heard Mark Martin say anything that didn’t make sense to me … until last week.

I was watching ABC’s “NASCAR Countdown” show prior to the race at Dover International Speedway, the second event in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Hosts Allen Bestwick, Brad Daugherty and Rusty Wallace were interviewing Martin, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader, about the very real possibility that he might win that elusive series championship at last.

Martin commented once again on how much fun he is having this season, and how his current good fortune is like icing on his career cake, all that kind of stuff.

And then he dropped the bomb. He said something along the lines of, “I wish I would have won it when I really wanted to win in, between 1989 and 2006.” He said this out loud, on television.

And then I said, “Mark Martin, what are you thinking?” I said this out loud, in my bedroom.
We humans like to conjecture on topics like where we would be if we could walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, or what it would be like to hear the actual thoughts inside another person’s head.

It is reminiscent of junior high school spelling class, when we learned the difference between sympathy – to commiserate with someone – and empathy – to actually feel what someone else is feeling. Empathy is way more intense.

It’s been a typically busy week in NASCAR, albeit an unorthodox one, ranging from uncomfortably close tolerances on some of the cars to an unexpected collaboration between Richard Petty Motorsports and the Saudi Arabian royal family.

With so much fodder to foment in their gray matter, it might be pretty interesting to get inside their heads and experience – briefly – to find out what some of the 12 drivers in the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup are thinking about right now.

Kurt Busch, for example, has been remarkably stoic about the accolades habitually heaped on the head of his younger sibling, Kyle. It has to be tough for Kurt, a former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, to repeatedly hear that his kid brother has the potential to be one of the greatest race car drivers of all time. But Kyle didn’t make the Chase this year. So you couldn’t blame Kurt for thinking, “Take that, squirt.”

Carl Edwards, who was still hobbling around on those crutches the last time I checked, might be of the opinion that playing Frisbee isn’t nearly as much fun as it used to be. You think?

Brian Vickers, despite a 10th-place standing heading into the race at Kansas, is probably feeling pretty good about things overall. Making the Chase with a relatively new team validates his position as a driver to be reckoned with. Also, after a few dust-ups with Kyle Busch this season, and beating him into the Chase by only a handful of points, Vickers too might be thinking, “Take that, squirt.”

Kasey Kahne has probably spent some time wondering how Prince Faisal bin Fahd bin Abdullah al-Saud will feel about the Budweiser showers in Victory Lane. And how Prince Faisal bin Fahd bin Abdullah al-Saud will feel about Jimmy Spencer.

I can’t begin to imagine what might be going through the minds of Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon — who really are two of the greatest race car drivers in history. But hey, they’re Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, so I’m thinking that’s good enough for them.

Juan Pablo Montoya might be thinking, “Did you guys like that lullaby I sang to you for 26 weeks? Did it make you guys sleepy? Did you think I would keep singing that same song in the Chase? Dream on!”

Currently tied with one of the most popular drivers in history after winning his third consecutive championship in 2008, Jimmie Johnson might be thinking, “Sorry about that, Cale.”

But I’m equally willing to bet Mark Martin is thinking, “Sorry about that, Jimmie.” Because no matter what Martin says on television in his typically self-effacing way, you know that championship trophy means the world to him.

The Chase is fun and exciting, but it is also stressful, and frustrating, and there are many distractions along the way. In addition to good equipment and driving skill, it takes mental toughness to make it to the end of that road before anyone else does.

The obvious answer to the question, “Where would you be if you walked a mile in someone else’s shoes?” is “A mile further down the road.” That’s a considerable margin by NASCAR standards, but not a necessary one. To win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, a driver is required to score only a single point more than the next closest guy.

And don’t think for one minute they’re not thinking about that.

Cathy Elliott writes a NASCAR column that is provided to newspapers.

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