Friday 5: Challenges are not just on the track for NASCAR drivers

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Ross Chastain has taken fans for quite a ride during his career. The 28-year-old has gone from underdog to smashing watermelons after wins and earning a full-time Cup ride. The latest adventure saw Trackhouse Racing select Chastain for its No. 1 car next season, joining Daniel Suarez as a teammate.

But Chastain admits fans have not witnessed his full journey through NASCAR’s ranks.

“You definitely have not seen all the low points,” he said. “And that’s not something I think, as people, we could ever knowingly go and share.”

Similar moments are often described with a euphemism to not reveal the severity and impact on an individual. The issue of mental health for athletes has gained attention in recent years, but it came to the forefront after U.S. gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of several events during the Tokyo Olympics.

Athletes often are viewed as action figures whose sole purpose is to amaze and entertain. Don’t like the show, then some will berate the athlete from the stands — or more likely on social media. They’ll declare it is their right to criticize someone even though most fans couldn’t do what that athlete does. Or know what the athlete is experiencing.

“At the end of the day, we’re not just athletes or entertainment, we’re human, too, and we have emotions and feelings and things that we’re working through behind the scenes that we don’t tell you guys about,” Biles told NBC Sports’ Mike Tirico. “And so, I just think it’s something that people should be more aware of.”

Asked by Tirico about her biggest takeaway from the Tokyo Olympics, Biles said: “Put your mental health first. … That’s more important than any other medal that you could win.”

While Chastain says fans haven’t seen the lowest of lows, fans have witnessed some of the downtimes. Among the bigger disappointments for Chastain came when Chip Ganassi Racing shut down the Xfinity team Chastain was to drive for in January 2019. That came after the FBI conducted raids at the headquarters of sponsor DC Solar and the home of the company’s CEO.

What was to have been one of Chastain’s biggest breaks in the sport turned to heartache. He scrambled for rides. Chastain went on to compete in 75 races across Cup, Xfinity and Trucks that season. That was the most by a driver in nearly a decade.

Such highs and lows can weigh on any athlete. Then there is the pressure to perform to keep sponsors and a job in NASCAR. That doesn’t even include the challenges everyday life can present.

NBC Sports’ Dale Earnhardt Jr. recently discussed mental health from an athlete’s point of view with Dan Patrick, who asked Earnhardt how many times he went into a race where he wasn’t in a good mental place.

“When you’re doing it every week, you certainly had your good days and bad days when you could tell where you were last week mentally and where you were this week and it was happening in such a repetitive process,” Earnhardt said.

“There were days when you got up and you felt really great and you felt like, ‘Man this is going to be a great day, I can feel it,’ or you had a great disposition and you could handle adversity better, and then there were days when you got up out of bed and you had no motivation or you had no confidence.

“You maybe had something going on in your personal life that had you down and depressed, and then when you were faced with any adversity during that day or that race you didn’t handle it well and you didn’t overcome it and you kind of fell apart. You’re definitely going to experience that in sports when you’re competing on a regular basis.

“You’re going to have those days when you mentally just have it together and those moments when you’re just overwhelmed. My personal life and my home life (were) the driving factor for me. If things were good and things were smooth for me at home, things were going to go pretty well at the racetrack. I think that might have been the other way around, too, sometimes. If things didn’t go well at the racetrack, things went bad at home. That’s for sure. If I failed, I had stretches of failure where I was just a miserable, miserable person every day of the week.”

Chastain said a key for him is to not let such moments stay bottled.

“I think talking about it would help a lot of people if they just had that outlet to talk about it,” Chastain said. “It’s just a phone call. It’s just a text. It’s going to dinner or having dinner at their house where it’s private, and talking about the true, dirty details about whatever is going on and figure it out.

“I don’t wish those bad or uneasy feelings on anybody, but you have to have that person or those people that you can call or talk to and truly trust and just lay it out there and be honest and open because you cannot handle it all on your own. And I figured that out, fortunately, before it was too late.”

Racing can be more challenging than some sports since there is one winner and up to 39 others in a Cup race who don’t win. Just the challenge of winning at any level can prove overwhelming.

“Some of the things about our sport is … that you’re going to lose a lot more than you win,” Ryan Blaney said. “You have to deal with the disappointment of that. 

“You’re gonna fail more than you succeed in this sport and that can sometimes get you down and weigh on you, and if you go through a little rough patch of a year or months or whatever, you can really start to lose confidence in yourself. But the thing that I’ve always thought of is just you try to keep improving and realize that things aren’t all that bad and just keep working on it. 

“At the same time, I say that, but I feel like when other athletes come out and they say things about mental health, or the toughness about what they do and other people don’t realize the pressure that sometimes gets put on them, these people say, ‘Oh, just do your job.’ 

“And it’s like, ‘You don’t know what it’s like.’ I don’t know what mental health issues that you go through with your job. I don’t know that. That’s what I don’t understand of people judging other people when they say they’re under pressure and things like that.

“The Olympics, I couldn’t deal with the pressure of the Olympics. The whole world is watching you and your country is rooting for you, but those things you just have to deal with personally on your own, and, like I said, people deal with those things differently.  I’ve always tried not to get too down, but sometimes you do and it’s just how you overcome that. I think the biggest thing is not bottling it in.”

Even for his success, Tyler Reddick, a two-time Xfinity Series champion, admits the pressures and stress is “not an easy thing to manage.

“The more experience you have and the more faith and confidence you have in people around you really helps manage the load that comes with all this pressure, especially with the stress coming up here (to Cup). One bad race here or there can screw-up the entire year, right? It’s important that you don’t let the negatives become overwhelming.”

2. Looking ahead

With Todd Gordon stepping away as crew chief at the end of the season, Ryan Blaney says he’s balanced focusing on this season while also considering crew chief candidates for next year.

“You’re always trying to prepare,” Blaney said. “You can’t wait until November, December and try to do something, so that’s still a work in progress. 

“There are some people in mind that I think are really good fits, but I’m looking for someone — I think Todd and I got along so well because … we’re almost kind of a yin and yang kind of thing. I can get fired up on the radio and Todd is very calm, and it evens itself out of those personalities when we’re doing our jobs. 

“Someone like that and, like I said, that’s ongoing. Someone who can — when tense situations do come up — (get) me back to where we need to be, and I think that’s how it always should be.”

Blaney heads into Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) eighth in points. He has finished sixth or better in four of the last five races.

3. Going for a repeat

Austin Cindric holds an 82-point lead on AJ Allmendinger in the battle to win the Xfinity Series regular season title. Seven races remain, including Saturday’s race at Watkins Glen (4 p.m. ET on CNBC).

Cindric, the reigning series champion, scored his first Xfinity win at Watkins Glen in 2019. Since that win, he’s won 12 of 66 starts. He’s scored 21 finishes of first or second in that time.

His focus is on securing the 15 playoff points with finishing first in the regular season.

“Regular season points has been my number one priority all season as it was last year for obvious reasons,” Cindric said. “The playoff points benefit of the equivalent of three wins is very important for me and to be able to maintain that throughout this month is top priority. If that means having to be more conservative, I might have to be. 

“We got to that point at the end of the regular season last year and I had to go points racing for almost a month to maintain a one-race lead, and I remember how painful that was for everyone on the team to have to go through that, but it’s definitely what’s necessary and definitely the most important thing for us right now.”

4. All about winning

The goal for John Hunter Nemechek after going from the Cup Series last year to the Camping World Truck Series this season was to win races.

He has done that, winning five of the 14 series starts and clinching first in the points as the series heads into its regular season finale Saturday at Watkins Glen International (12:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

Asked how this season with Kyle Busch Motorsports has changed the narrative around him, Nemechek said: “I feel like we have definitely turned some heads this year, I would say, but as far as all the chatter, or banter, or whatever goes on behind the scenes, we haven’t paid attention to it.

“We are trying to win races, win the championship and do the best that we can every single week.”

As for the future, he says he will be particular in his next steps.

“Having a Cup opportunity, I was super grateful for,” he said of his ride with Front Row Motorsports last season. “At the end of 2019, filling in, and all of last year with Front Row. I don’t regret going Cup racing, I don’t regret going to Front Row Motorsports. I was blessed with the opportunity from (team owner) Bob Jenkins and all of our partners involved to be able to go there and run races. I learned a ton.

“There are so many characteristics that go into the Cup Series that you can maximize it in different ways and kind of optimize your potential and you don’t really realize that in the Truck Series or the Xfinity Series. When you go to the Cup level, it’s hard to win. It’s hard to run top 15. It’s hard to run top 10. It’s hard to run top five. You are running as hard as you can, battling for 20th to 25th as you are making a run for fifth place in the Cup Series.

“Everyone is the best of the best up there, and when it comes down to it, I don’t feel like I will put myself in a position to not win races again. I think for me, being able to win races and know that I can show up to the racetrack every single weekend and know that I have a shot is the biggest thing for me.”

5. Playoff points

With four races left in the Cup regular season, some teams will be focused on scoring as many playoff points as possible. A win is worth five playoff points. A stage win is worth one playoff point.

Playoff points also will be awarded to the top 10 in points when the regular season ends. The points leader gets 15 playoff points, the runner-up gets 10, third place gets nine. It decreases by one point to 10th, which receives one playoff point.

Here is how many playoff points drivers have scored this season heading into Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen:

32 — Kyle Larson

19 — Martin Truex Jr.

15 — Alex Bowman

14 — Kyle Busch

11 — Chase Elliott

9 — Ryan Blaney

8 — William Byron

8 — Joey Logano

8 — Kurt Busch

7 — Brad Keselowski

5 — Denny Hamlin

5 — Christopher Bell

5 — Michael McDowell

5 — Aric Almirola

1 — Tyler Reddick

1 — Chris Buescher

1 — Matt DiBenedetto

1 — Bubba Wallace

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