Mind Games Always A Threat In NASCAR Chase

Mind games are a part of professional sports – especially when it comes to the championship battle.

When the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup got underway, Jimmie Johnson had two less-than-stellar performances and was thought by some to be down and out; his championship run of six consecutive titles a near impossibility. 

Two weeks later, Johnson is four points out of the championship lead and back in the minds of the competition. 

Yet for Chase contender Kevin Harvick, he is not ready to get caught up in the mind games, calling it "a matter of circumstances."

Harvick and the No. 29 team has been able to "overcome some pretty big hurdles" and is confident the team can remain focused on their championship efforts.

"We just need to keep protecting the things that we are doing and not shooting ourselves in the foot," Harvick said. 

Where does Harvick's insight come from? Perhaps watching Denny Hamlin's championship hopes fall by the wayside at the end of the 2011 season. 

Harvick said Thursday he knew last year at Homestead that Hamlin was not going to win the championship.

"He couldn't hardly sit still and was so nervous going into that race he could hardly stand it," Harvick said. "I could see it, Jimmie was gouging at it. I just sat back and watched."

That prediction came to fruition as Hamlin was unable to recover from a disappointing finish at Phoenix and lost the title to Johnson in the last race of the year. 

Hamlin, who struggled throughout much of this season, said it is "hard not to get consumed" by one bad race in the Chase, especially for those going after their first title. 

While he will not be able to use the lessons he learned from last year's disappointment – Hamlin is currently 54 points behind Carl Edwards in the Chase standings – he is eager to watch this year's battle. 

His advice? Relax and have fun.

"Those guys that are searching for the championship for the first time are trying to get to the peak goal of their racing career," he said. "Everything they've worked for their entire lives and dreamed of is just a couple races away and a couple spots away in any given race. That's when your stomach really gets turning is when you're in those situations."

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