In Their Heads: Is Jimmie Johnson Really Winning the Mind Games?

Patti RodischAnalyst IMarch 27, 2010

MARTINSVILLE, VA - MARCH 26:  Jimmie Johnson sits in the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 26, 2010 in Martinsville, Virginia.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

I remember back in the early 1990s when the Chicago Bulls were winning everything, the body language on some of these players told the story better than the game recaps on ESPN.

It is tough to walk out on the court, the field or track with swagger when at the end of the day, you’re getting beat by the same guy.

Jimmie Johnson is that guy and he knows that. In fact this is exactly what he wanted, to be in his competitors heads.

"Man, I've always wanted to be that guy that frustrated the field, frustrated the garage area. I was fortunate enough to watch [Dale] Earnhardt do that during his run and [Jeff] Gordon during his” Johnson said.

The question remains, is it really working? Or does what Johnson calls mind games, others see as a challenge?

For some drivers, clearly he is in their heads. A dejected Kurt Busch at Bristol last week said it best after dominating all day only to finish third.

“Anyone but the 48,” he said and you could see the anger and disappointment on his face.

Let’s be honest, Johnson might be good but for some he is not good enough to mess around with them.

Tony Stewart is not one of them.

"There is a group of guys where it's easy to get in their heads, and there is a group of guys where it's not so easy and you can't get into their heads no matter what you do. But there definitely are some guys that you can do that to."

For most of the drivers though they are not going to come out and admit that he gets to them. For some of them all it does is motivate them to not only get better, but to find a way to beat Johnson.

Nobody more can relate to Johnson, than his teammate and fellow four time champion Jeff Gordon. He has been where Johnson has been and knows exactly how easy it is and just how quickly it can all change.

“There's no doubt that they have a lot of confidence in their program and what they're doing. Jimmie does in his driving and Chad (Knaus) does in his ability to be a crew chief. But nobody is invincible out here."

What this does though is it makes them want to get better. It can be the great motivator for everyone. For the drivers who are not affected by Johnson, it makes them work harder at the shop and at the track every week.

For some the gap has closed in 2010.If you look at the stats this season, Johnson has not been the best car out there in every race. In fact he hasn’t really dominated a race this season.

At Las Vegas it was Gordon, Atlanta it was Busch and at Bristol once again Busch dominated the day. Yet, Johnson walked has walked away with the trophy three times this season.

While teams are frustrated and are scratching their heads as to what they need to do differently, the gap as closed. There has been a small shift this season as instead of teams chasing Johnson down the entire race he seems to be the one doing the chasing.

When they do beat Johnson, it will be all the more satisfying. First, they have to find a way to beat Johnson at his own game. They need to make the last second jumper, kick the overtime field goal or in this case cross the finish line first.