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Through the Field: Mental Balance Behind the Wheel

by Elliot Hicks

I don’t want this column to sound hostile, but it’s time to put it bluntly:  We need to take mental health seriously in America.

I feel like a lot of us already know that, as over the last few years much of the negative stigma has been taken away from those with mental health struggles, no matter how temporary or lasting they may be. But some still just don’t get it.

Alex Bowman currently sits sixth in the playoff standings, 27 points below the cutline for the championship round.

Two weeks ago, when the Cup Series raced at the Charlotte Roval, a clip from Alex Bowman’s radio was played on the NBC broadcast. Bowman was discussing how ill he was feeling in the car under the caution flag, attributing the illness to his anxiety and mental health during that part of the race.
It was absolutely an anxiety-inducing moment for the driver of the No. 88; the car hadn’t been doing great, the team was at a major risk of being eliminated from the playoffs and the cars who Bowman was battling were running better than he was. As one of the many who can also identify with anxiety, I would feel a little anxious if that situation happened to me in a video game, let alone on the real track with real-world consequences.

The issue here isn’t with most people in the NASCAR world. No one on the broadcast had anything negative to say about this. But a motorsports media member live-tweeting the race decided to refer to Bowman as “Anxiety Alex” in multiple tweets following this, even turning it into a hashtag. And knowing the demographics of NASCAR fans, some of them undoubtedly agreed with this media member, thinking they could make light or make fun of the situation.

Even though Bowman acknowledged the changes that happen to him in a situation like that, just like the variety of changes that may happen to anyone of the estimated 40 million people who suffer from some form of anxiety, it is not anyone else’s place to speak in the way that he did, let alone try to create some sort of viral hashtag out of it.

We need everyone to take mental health seriously in America and throughout the entire world, as it is ever-present and is not a sign of weakness any more than any other health issue is.

Speaking of issues, many fans took issue with Joey Logano’s championship-round-clinching victory at Kansas last weekend. It certainly appeared that Kevin Harvick, as he usually does on the mile-and-a-half speedways, had the faster car in the closing laps, but could not get any aerodynamic help with Logano’s No. 22 car blocking the air from getting to Harvick’s No. 4.
Races, where the fastest car wins, are great, but Logano winning despite not running well all day is part of the beauty of the playoffs. It’s not always the best car or best team that wins every game, race, series, or championship, it is who does the right thing at the right time in the right place. That’s how Logano earned his ticket to the championship round.

Just like last week, anyone of the playoff drivers should be in position to win Sunday at Texas. With that in mind, a power ranking of each one is the best way to analyze who has the best shot at fighting for a title and earning a good performance in the Lone Star State.

NASCAR Playoffs Power Rankings

1. Joey Logano:  He’s naturally the pick here as he has already clinched his spot. The next two races are solely trophy-hunting for Logano while the main focus is on Phoenix.

2. Kevin Harvick:  The No. 4 team has won the last three playoff races at Texas. I have no reason to bet against them this year as well, but Harvick is surely such a large favorite that I’m sure true bettors will look for alternative options. With that being said, I don’t see anyone but Harvick realistically winning this race unless he has big trouble.

3. Chase Elliott:  In past years, Chevrolet had all but bowed out of the championship race, as a bowtie driver has not made the championship round since Jeff Gordon in 2015. Chase Elliott, the driver who replaced him, has the best shot to become the next. The No. 9 team has performed too well lately, including leading much of the early part of the race at Kansas, to go out without a fight.

4. Brad Keselowski:  The No. 2 team sits just eight points above the cutline, which is a dangerous place to be. While Brad Keselowski hasn’t been extremely stellar on mile-and-a-halfs this year, he’s been plenty good enough to stay afloat and ensure good runs at Texas and Martinsville could get him in without a win.

5. Alex Bowman:  The No. 88 has recaptured some of the magic that made the team fast at tracks like Texas in the early part of 2020, but it more than likely came too late to have a realistic title shot.

Bowman would’ve had the best shot to win Kansas had there been another ten laps, but he had shown no reason to think that he would win until then. The team has to come out of the gate like they did early on to either win or damn near win Texas because Martinsville is a lot tougher.

6. Denny Hamlin:  Denny Hamlin has had a massive string of bad luck recently in Texas. Five of the last seven races have ended in 20th or worse for the No. 11 team, though one of the two outliers was a victory in the spring of 2019.

That poor luck along with the publicity of the new 23XI team he will start with Michael Jordan next year, makes me believe that Hamlin will once again come up short for the title in 2020.

7. Martin Truex Jr.:  I’ve said this too often during the 2020 playoffs; I’ve seen nothing from Martin Truex’s No. 19 team to indicate they have any real shot at a title. There was nothing wrong with the ninth-place finish at Kansas, but at this stage, you need to be contending for the win every week and they just aren’t doing that.

The crew chief change from Cole Pearn to James Small in 2020 has taken away the consistent mile-and-a-half success for Truex but keep an eye out next week as the series returns to Martinsville, where Truex earned his lone 2020 win.

8. Kurt Busch:  Don’t get me wrong, Kurt Busch is still the feel-good story of the playoffs after winning Las Vegas. But the No. 1 team isn’t good enough to dig out of the hole created by the engine failure at Kansas, as a win at Texas or Martinsville just seems too far-fetched for them.

Thanks for reading. For more fantasy NASCAR and life advice, follow me on Twitter, @EHicks39, or check out more of my work at Elliot-Hicks.com.

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