Through the Field: The Stress of the Playoffs & Pandemic

Life has a tendency to be inherently stressful at times.

Obviously, not everything will be a cakewalk. One of the greatest parts of the life we live is when we overcome difficult challenges and can come out on the other side successfully.

But the era we are in the midst of now has been especially difficult for most of us. Living through a pandemic, especially this pandemic in the United States has brought both necessary and unnecessary headaches on an almost daily basis.

For college students (the group most relevant to myself) and pro athletes (the group most relevant to this website), there have been some very unique situations of late, as if those things aren’t hard enough.

Even though there are a lot of irresponsible college students, I believe a majority of them are taking the virus seriously whether or not their school is having any in-person activities. For most of us, we’re having to deal with classes we paid thousands for on an imperfect medium that hasn’t been completely figured out yet.

Many professors and students struggle with online tools in the first place, and that’s when they work properly and don’t crash or become inaccessible. These classes are hard enough as it is, only made even worse in the current circumstances. That’s not to even bring up the social changes made necessary by the pandemic, either.

If you set aside the fact that the drivers and other pro athletes have a spectacularly rewarding occupation where they earn an unbelievable amount of fame and fortune, it’s not always easygoing for them either.

There’s always an immense amount of pressure on them to start with, and the pandemic has made things harder on them. Most sports have little to no fans in the stands, something that can help a player’s motivation and drive to perform their best.

NASCAR has had a few races with fans, but there have been more empty grandstands than not. While NASCAR obviously can’t operate in a bubble, their families and friends still aren’t allowed to join them on race weekends like they normally would. I’m sure the ability to still see them during the week helps, but it’s a lonely race day for drivers in the COVID-19 era.

When you throw in the fact that there are drivers racing for their jobs, and 16 of them are fighting for a championship over the next nine weeks, the pressure and stress can be through the roof.

We’ve heard drivers like Bubba Wallace talk about depression and struggling with mental health, just one of many great topics that Wallace has brought to the forefront of discussion in the motorsports world.

Here’s to hoping that these drivers, crews, families and everyone else is dealing with the stress in their lives well. And that includes you too. And if you’re not, reach out for help, please.

Speaking of help, I gave the readers of last week’s column some help when I correctly predicted the winner at Darlington’s playoff opener. Kevin Harvick kept ahold of the top spot in the standings and punched his ticket to the next round, taking advantage of Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr.’s misfortunes to win his eighth race of 2020.

He got the win, earned more playoff points to add to his series-high total, and gets to relax a little more over the next two races. But, considering he’s been the top driver in the series at Richmond, the location of this weekend’s race, over the last 10 races there, the No. 4 team will still be one to watch.

Who’s Hot

Austin Dillon:  I’ll be honest, I didn’t think Austin Dillon had it in him. I thought his win at Texas was kind of a fluke and that the No. 3 team would quickly and silently bow out of the playoffs after the first round.

They proved me wrong in Darlington. Dillon finished second, ran well throughout the night and nearly won the race after getting close to Harvick on the last lap. Dillon went from being one point away from the cutline to ten points away, moving from 14th in the points to eighth. 10 points still aren’t that much, but Dillon has two sixth-place finishes at Richmond in the last three races and obviously will enter the race feeling well about their last performance.

Alex Bowman:  Other than suffering from a broken jack on a pit stop, Alex Bowman was consistently in the top 10 the entire race at Darlington and finished sixth.

The No. 88 team has three consecutive top-10 finishes, their longest streak of the season. But the biggest plus for Bowman is his new 19-point advantage above the cut line, sitting in fifth place in the standings. He’ll probably need that buffer at Richmond as he’s only had one top-15 finish in six career races there.

Who’s Not

Ryan Blaney:  Disaster was everywhere for the No. 12 team at Darlington. They lost 10 points and had to start at the back of the field for failing pre-race inspection, then had a tire issue that put them on pit road and a lap down midrace.

Ryan Blaney finished 24th and is at the bottom of the playoff standings, 17 points away from safety. Richmond is not looking any better for Blaney, as he has never finished better than 17th in his eight career starts there. They may swing for the fences with a different setup or strategy but otherwise stay away from Blaney this week.

Matt DiBenedetto:  Matt DiBenedetto’s performance didn’t get any better at Darlington; he was never a threat for a good finish, ended up in 21st and is also 17 points out of the playoffs at the moment.

This week, the goal should be to show some kind of speed to prove that the No. 21 team still has some fight left in it, as one of DiBenedetto’s best racetracks comes up next week when the series visits Bristol. I’d expect a win will be what he needs to advance because Richmond is not a good track for DiBenedetto. Though only two of his 10 Richmond races have come in competitive equipment, he’s never finished better than 14th and has six finishes outside the top 30.

This Week’s Pick

Martin Truex Jr.:  He’s won two recent Richmond races, the No. 19 team is hotter than ever and Martin Truex Jr. will be hungry after just missing the checkered flag at Darlington.

Sleeper Picks

Clint Bowyer:  The No. 14 team has four consecutive top-10s at Richmond and needs another one currently tied for the last spot in the Round of 12

Kyle Busch: “Rowdy” has to win sometime, right? Richmond is one of his best racetracks; the No. 18 team has two wins and three second-place finishes in his last nine Richmond races.


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.