Commentary

Head cases, head games at Dover

Updated: September 29, 2012, 4:04 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DOVER, Del. -- So far at Dover International Speedway, we have learned Kurt Busch once called Charlie Sheen his Zen master and Denny Hamlin talked with a sports psychologist on how to fall in love with this one-mile concrete slab he loves to hate.

What's next? Dale Earnhardt Jr. scheduling an appearance on Dr. Drew?

Perhaps this confirms what many have believed for years, that Sprint Cup drivers are head cases. Not that we should be surprised or they should be offended. Most athletes are, in their own unique way.

It's not all about talent and setups. It's often what's between the ears that separates the pack.

That's perhaps more true than ever for Sunday's third race of the Chase (2 p.m. ET, ESPN) at the track known as the Monster Mile. It apparently is a place you either love or hate, and there's no in between.

Hamlin hates it, and rightfully so. His average finish of 24.2 over the past 10 races here is by far the worst of the 12 Chase drivers. Jimmie Johnson's 5.7 average finish in that span is by far the best. Although he should love starting on the pole Sunday after laying down the top lap in Saturday's qualifying.

So when you see Johnson all smiles and Hamlin looking as though he spent a losing night at a blackjack table in the adjoining casino -- even though he's coming off his series-best fifth win of the year -- you understand why.

"Just spent so many hours watching tape … my eyes are crossed," Hamlin said when asked why he seemed so serious during his media availability. "You can only watch so much video and then, when you go out and do it in real life, you kind of get dizzy."

Hamlin is pulling out all the stops, technically and mentally, for this one. He texted sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who helped him overcome his hangover from blowing the 2010 title, and wrote, "I owe you a lot. I need some positive influence on this week coming up -- it's my worst track."

Rotella's response: "Let your challenge for the week be to fall in love with this track. From the moment you arrive, look at things to love about it and reasons to love it. All week look for things great and special to happen to you.

"Embrace the challenge of having your best attitude that you have ever had this week. Take pride in showing yourself how strong your mind is. Own your mind and own the racetrack that you race. Control your attitude and let your emotions own the world. Have fun."

There you go. If Hamlin comes out of here with a win, he can thank the same person who helped Darren Clarke win the 2011 British Open and Keegan Bradley win the 2011 PGA Championship.

Perhaps Earnhardt should call the good doctor, too. His average finish at Dover isn't much better (18.7), and he's 26 points behind leader Johnson in the standings compared with the seven by which Hamlin trails.

Earnhardt also admittedly doesn't have a lot of positive thoughts about this track. But at least he had a fourth-place finish here in June, giving him some hope of keeping pace with Johnson, who has won four of the past seven at Dover. Hamlin was a mediocre 18th in June, his third straight finish outside the top 15 here.

"I've got good confidence going in," Earnhardt said. "We're just going to try to maximize our opportunity on the racetrack."

Confidence has been the key word this weekend, whether you're looking for it or have it. Johnson has great confidence. He's coming off consecutive second-place finishes to start the Chase and is at one of his best tracks on the circuit.

He's the prohibitive favorite to win, although that might not be the best thing. The driver who has left Dover with the points lead hasn't won the Chase since it began in 2004. A win would leave Johnson in the points lead.

But if that happens, the five-time champion won't need a sports psychologist to help him get through the trauma of beating the Dover jinx with seven races remaining.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson is feeling good about his chances at Dover on Sunday.

"I think the point in that is that it's a long season and a lot can happen," Johnson said of the unusual statistic. "But you want every point you can get and leading now is a great position to be in.

"Any champion of the Chase would take leading out of Dover."

Tony Stewart certainly would. He finished 25th in this race a year ago to give away the points lead he had built with consecutive wins at Chicago and New Hampshire. He was 44th in Friday's second practice.

"How would anybody know the relevance of that?" Stewart said of the unusual stat. "It's just a stat."

Hamlin would take the points lead, as well. And he's not so mentally whipped by Dover that he's conceding anything to Johnson.

"If we get our car good, we can beat him here," said Hamlin, who was third in Friday's first practice and 17th in the second. "I'm not just looking to, 'Let's not give up so many points to the 48,' because he's not my focus this weekend.

"Our focus is ourselves, and knowing that, if I've got the balance that I want here and the car that I need, we can win just like we can any other racetrack, even though our record may not show it."

But the record is there for a reason. Hamlin can convince himself he's as good here as he is at Martinsville or Richmond, but loving Dover won't necessarily put him into Victory Lane.

"There are times when you can love a racetrack and be as upbeat as you've ever been and still go in there and have a bad weekend," said Martin Truex Jr., who loves Dover more than most tracks. "Having a good mental attitude is a good thing to keep the team rallied around you.

"But at the end of the day, if you can't get your car to do what you want, it doesn't matter how much you love the racetrack."

Thank you, Dr. Truex.

"New Hampshire last weekend is a good example," Truex continued. "It's a place I really enjoy going, and we struggled there for three years. So it doesn't change anything. You've still got to get the job done."

That's where Johnson has a mental edge over everyone. He gets the job done at Dover better than anybody, and he does it without a Zen master or sports psychologist.

"We all have those tracks that we don't like or that don't like us -- however you want to phrase it and work through it," Johnson said. "For years and years, I went to Bristol telling myself I loved it. And I didn't love it until I won there.

"So until you go to that track and prove to yourself that you run well there, it's just a lot of positive thinking."

Now Johnson is starting to sound like a psychologist.

Maybe it is time for Dr. Drew.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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