Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Drivers and "Slumps"

The racing media has very interesting ideas of exactly what constitutes a slump. For some drivers, it can mean not winning in the last 3 or 4 races. For other drivers, it can mean going years without a win, but even then the word 'slump' is not used at all.

In Kyle Busch' recent win at Watkins Glen, more than a few media outlets reported the triumphant news that Kyle's slump was over. Slump? This guy has won 8 races this year. How can he accurately be described as having a slump? Maybe there were a few races where all did not go his way. Maybe the 8 wins weren't consecutive races, but even if he wins no more races this year, it can hardly be said that Kyle Busch has had a slump at any time this year.

Other drivers could more accurately be described as being in the midst of a slump, in my opinion. The two most obvious examples would have to be Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Here we are in August, and both drivers as of yet win less in 2008. Whereas Tony has been known to be a late starter, in other words not winning until later in the season, Tony's performance and luck have quite honestly been less than spectacular this season. The same could be said for Jeff Gordon, though as a multi time Daytona 500 winner, Jeff obviously is not known for starting late in the season.

Perceptions of certain drivers draw analysts to different conclusions about exactly what constitutes sub par performance. I think nobody is surprised when Jimmie Johnson wins a race at any track, but if say, Michael Waltrip were to win at Watkins Glen, that would really be news.

Many analysts and fans of the sport scoff at certain driver's chances of winning at particular tracks. A few years ago, I doubt that anyone seriously considered the chances of Ward Burton winning the Daytona 500, yet that's exactly what he did. This year's 500 winner, Ryan Newman probably wasn't tops on any one's picks either, yet he did win. Most people consider Dale Earnhardt Jr. strictly a restrictor plate track specialist, yet he's won at tracks like Bristol, Dover and Richmond.

Speaking of Ryan Newman. A couple of weeks ago former Penske teammate Rusty Wallace was telling anyone who would listen that Newman had been fired by Penske. It's true that other than that Daytona 500 win, Ryan has not had the greatest of seasons. I have to ask, however, how many Daytona 500 winners get fired the same year they win the Daytona 500? Not many, I would suppose. In 1998, Dale Earnhardt won the Daytona 500, and didn't win another race all season. It's true, Ryan Newman doesn't exactly have the celebrity or credentials that Earnhardt had, but I seriously doubt that Roger Penske would fire his Daytona 500 winning driver. Penske pretty much said that Rusty Wallace' claims were inaccurate. Message to Rusty: We all know you don't like Newman, but quit making yourself look like a fool by spreading unfounded rumors.

I think every driver at this level of racing either feels like their in a slump or they don't. There are not many athletes more competitive than Sprint Cup drivers. Most drivers can be broken down into two categories: Those who blame their lack of performance on other factors, such as their teams or their equipment, or their competitors. Then there are those who question everything, but are likely not to put blame on any other component of their performance until they have examined their own efforts. The efforts involved does not just mean driving a race car as fast as they can for 500 miles. It also means ascertaining whether they are communicating effectively with their crew chiefs and spotters. It also means pushing when it's time to push, or laying back when it's time to lay back. In other words, its about driving smart.

True champions in this sport generally fall into the latter category. It's important for a driver to have total confidence in himself, but when he starts blaming his mistakes on other drivers or his own team or equipment. Any driver can have a slump, but it's just as important for the driver to examine his own input into the problem before laying the blame on anyone or anything else.

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