For drivers marching relentlessly toward the hope of a life-changing first NASCAR championship, the mental toll of the challenge is every bit as taxing as the mechanical or the strategic.
While in the garage Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, I sought out Carl Edwards to discuss that dynamic.
Jerry Markland/Getty Images/NASCARCarl Edwards, who lost the 2011 Sprint Cup championship on a tiebreaker, has zero wins and failed to make the Chase.
He's lived it. Three times during his eight-year-plus career, Edwards has been in contention for a championship in the season's late stages, in 2005, 2008 and 2011. Meanwhile this season, despite high expectations, has been wholly disappointing: zero wins and a failure to qualify for the Chase.
So how would he assess his team? How did his back-and-forth with Tony Stewart in 2011 affect his opportunity to win a championship? And what are Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski experiencing right now?
Smith: What assessment would you give the No. 99 team right now?
Edwards: "The 99 team, right now, I think we're 15th in points or 14th in points, or something, so we're in a position that, No. 1, we didn't expect to be in, and, No. 2, is not acceptable to us. So what we're doing is, we're doing everything we can to make sure this Fastenal team gets running the way we know it can, the way it did last year -- the way our teammates are, for that matter.
"We're looking at every aspect of the team: the crew chief, the driver, the pit crew, everything that we can try to make better so that we can go out in 2013 and win a championship."
Smith: In what areas, specifically, do you need the most improvement?
Edwards: "There are a couple things that definitely we can do better. But that's the thing, there's no one big problem we have. Now, we have had a lot of bad luck. We have had a crew chief change. But there's not one specific thing.
"I think if we're honest with one another, we all have to be better in a small way. I know that's what we're working on, and hopefully we can accomplish it. We know how well we can run. We come to the races expecting to win, expecting to be on the pole, expecting to fight for the championship. And trust me, it is not fun running the way we've been running."
Smith: You've lived Brad Keselowski's current situation, a guy vying for his first Cup championship and negotiating all those emotions and pressure. What is that like?
Edwards: "My personal opinion is that Brad and Jimmie are experiencing a lot different type of pressure. I can only speak from my own experiences. In 2005, we had a real shot at the championship. We tied for second behind Tony Stewart. That type of pressure was kind of fun. There was no expectation. Anything we did was a good thing, and any mistake I made was acceptable.
"Then in 2008, we won nine races. We were battling Jimmie. Jimmie was on top of his game. Jimmie and Chad, as they always are, were very tough. Jimmie didn't play really any mind games. He didn't make any statements like he's making in this Chase, but I did feel a different type of pressure, started to feel like, 'Wow, I should win this championship.' And that was a little bit different than 2005.
"Then we go to 2011, and it was totally different for me. I had made all my mistakes. I knew that was my championship to win. And so, I felt like there was a lot more pressure on me. Fortunately, I can look back on that and say we went to Homestead with all the pressure in the world, qualified on the pole, led the most laps and just got beat.
"But that is a very, very difficult thing to do. And I think Jimmie, right now, realizes Brad's somewhere in that area where he needs to win this championship. I saw Jimmie kind of poking at him in the media. And if you remember, Jimmie spun out, he made a mistake at Kansas. And for him to come in to the media center at Martinsville to act like he's the man and all the pressure's on Brad, that's very, very telling of where Jimmie's mind is. He knows what he's doing."
Smith: What advantage does championship experience give a driver?
Edwards: "Tell you this, the difference between five championships and six. ... I mean, [Johnson's] just having fun. He's going to go home, no matter what happens, look at those trophies and, hey, he gave it his best shot. The difference between zero and one [championship]? That's a big difference.
"And if Brad Keselowski can do what he's done all year, I think that he's going to show everybody that he is very, very mentally tough. 'Cause it's tough. When you're dealing with a champion that's done it a number of times, it tests not only the driver but the team.
"Those guys, if they're in the hunt when they come down to that last pit stop, his pit crew, they're going to have to have nerves of steel because they know it's all on the line. And they don't want to be the guys that bump up against that heavyweight champ, Jimmie, and get pushed aside. They want to win."
Smith: We all thoroughly enjoyed the back and forth in the media between you and Tony Stewart in 2011. What affect do those mind games have on you?
Edwards: "I'm very fortunate. I've had a lot of life experience that's taught me that, usually, when people are talking a lot, they're trying to hide something, they're trying to cover something up. And I've dealt with Tony enough that I knew he was having a good time. It was a good show. But I knew deep down, I've read his book, I know what he's about. He wanted to win that championship.
"And in my opinion, I think that was something that he was doing to try to shake us. So that made it easier. But if that would have been my first year up there competing for the championship, it probably would have been a little bit tougher. It is fun. It's a neat experience to be a part of. It's definitely educational.
"Pressure can do a lot of things, but it can make diamonds too. I think it made me tougher, and I think that no matter what happens, I think Brad, just going through this, is going to be a really, really great competitor because of it. And he's going be driving a Ford next year, so for us, I think it's really good."