Out With The Trash

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Chad Knaus may want to stay out of Tony Stewart's head. As laid-back as the current NASCAR NEXTEL Cup points leader appears, inside where those brains are churning at 200 miles per hour must be a pretty scary place.

We know the psychology behind the old verbal "psyche him out with public statements." While newspaper columns bashing an upcoming foe appear from time to time taped to the walls in professional locker rooms - for some reason, especially the NFL - they are more often used as wallpaper in high schools.

The thinking behind trying to mess with someone's thinking seems sound: Knaus at Martinsville made sure Stewart heard how his winning the pole meant nothing, that the half-mile track would chew him up and, oh yes, that the four tracks remaining on the schedule happen to be places where his driver, Jimmie Johnson, excels.

So what happens? Stewart not only acknowledges he heard Knaus' words, but says the whole setup was juvenile and wouldn't affect his performance in the least. In fact, he added, he thought the whole stunt was ridiculous.

Which is what has always confused me about this particular strategy. Say something derogatory behind a rival's back; hope he hears it and what? He curls into a ball and gives up?

Trash talk isn't new, but it seems to work best when the opponents are lined up eye-to-eye and toe-to-toe. In that situation, the exactly right cut can knock a guy offsides. Same thing after a race: Drivers who tangled with one another vow revenge - and it will come when the other guy least expects it. Or course then there's the trip to the NASCAR hauler where the ruler comes out, hands are thwacked and all involved know they better wait a good long time before they retaliate, and even then they often find out just how long NASCAR's memory is.

When the circuit hits Homestead-Miami, the season's final race, things could be different. If Stewart and Johnson are separated by five or 10 points the war of words may get truly rude, but we're not there yet. First comes Atlanta for Sunday's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, where both gentlemen have run well. And of course there is still time for a spoiler or two to jump into what appears at this point to be a two-man mix; maybe Ryan Newman or Greg Biffle.

Newman has said this is exactly the time of year when he starts hitting on all cylinders, while Biffle is still so jazzed from having won five races at the beginning of the season that to him nothing appears impossible.

Newman, however, may have waited just a tad too long to get his entire act together (qualifying, racing and pitting) while Biffle seems to be running more on hope than true championship maneuvers.

Johnson, of course, is the defending champion at Atlanta, a massive sentimental favorite to win last year after a plane owned by team-head Rick Hendrick crashed the previous week at Martinsville, killing 10 people, including Hendrick's son, brother and nieces, among others. Johnson owned not only Atlanta that day, but even casual fans across the country who hadn't yet settled on a favorite.

Seven months earlier Johnson had a fiendish, last-lap run against Carl Edwards at the 1.5-mile track; Edwards hooking up and hanging on and driving completely over his head in beating Johnson by the width of a fingernail.

Johnson has four top-five finishes in his last five races at Atlanta, a good enough record that Knaus this week would probably be smart to keep his psychological warfare to himself or turn it elsewhere.

Because like Johnson, Stewart also has a victory at Atlanta, his coming in March of 2002. He has seven top 10s (including four top fives) in his last eight races there, and enters the race leading nearly every category in which NASCAR keeps records. Five victories, 22 top 10s and 1,829 laps led, as well as miles led and bonus points earned. A record good enough that Knaus should choose a different target. One thing: he best stay away from veterans Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin, both of whom have seen their title hopes slowly trickling away and neither of whom would spend one second worrying about what another team's crew chief might have to say.

A head game or not, Stewart acknowledges although he and Johnson are the obvious favorites, he isn't counting out a single one of his nine competitors. Johnson, remember, left Martinsville last year eighth in the series points and won at Atlanta and Darlington before taking eventual series champion Kurt Busch to the final lap and coming up eight points short.

"We've had two bad races. Jimmie's had one bad race. Everybody is going to have little things happen," offers Stewart. "With four weeks to go, you can't narrow it down yet. It's too early. As long as everybody is mathematically in it, I don't know how you can count anybody out of it."

True feelings? Or a little psyche job of his own? Only Stewart knows. Which is one of the reasons this second-year Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup has become so much more than a stunt. At the risk of scathing emails from those that prefer the olden days, this top 10 going for the gold has become the real deal.

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