Being a first-time driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup is like being a freshman in high school. The upperclassmen already know the ropes, understand how to navigate the system and may have been through a fight or two.
That would seem to put the newbies – Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Chris Buescher – at a disadvantage when it comes to handling the stress and mind games that come with being in the playoff.
But when USA TODAY Sports asked them if they felt that way, it became clear they don’t buy that line of thinking.
Dillon: “I’m relaxed. Hey, (making it) was the big feat for us. The pressure is on those guys more because they’ve won and they’ve been good all year. I feel great. The pressure is off me.”
Elliott: “I really don’t (think the new drivers are at a disadvantage). If we can show up and have our game where it needs to be and execute a weekend like it needs to happen ... I think we’re a team that can do that.”
Larson: “Yeah, it’s my first Chase, but I think I’ll be fine. I’ve dealt with nerves my whole career in all forms of racing.”
Buescher: “There’s a lot of us who are new to it, but just because it’s our first time in it doesn’t mean we haven’t paid attention through the years. We know how it’s going to play out – every single one of us does.”
The veterans – those who have been through the intense situations and battled under the harsh glare of a brighter spotlight – have a feeling the young drivers might be kidding themselves.
After all, the newbies haven’t been through it firsthand yet.
“I always tilt it toward an experienced guy, just because the pressure is so great and you never know how you’re going to act when you’re under that pressure,” six-time champion Jimmie Johnson said. “I’ve seen it do some wild stuff to guys and (make them) not even act like themselves. So you just don’t know until the pressure is on you.”
Kevin Harvick said whether or not the first-time drivers are at a disadvantage due to lack of experience is based on their attitude going in.
“I think that depends on how you approach it,” Harvick said. “Are you just happy to be there, or do you want to win? … I would definitely say it’s a disadvantage if you haven’t been through it before.”
Harvick is the only driver who has made the final round of the new Chase in both years so far. He won his first career title in 2014, and finished second last year. He said part of being in the Chase is understanding not only how to stay in contention week after week, but adjusting to situations which might not be favorable.
“It’s hard to keep living up to that pressure and keep your cars prepared and adapt to something you need to change – whether it’s a car or a person,” he said. “... Those are things you have to learn as you go through this.”
Defending champion Kyle Busch agreed the younger drivers might be behind “a little bit” in terms of being mentally prepared for the Chase – though speed can help overcome that.
But when it comes to pressure, Brad Keselowski may have said it best: Even the veterans aren’t immune to its effects after going through it several times.
“I don’t think you get used to it, you just get a little more tolerant to it,” he said. “It’s a pressure-ringer and it’s an environment you don’t have a lot of control over. You just somewhat accept that.”
What these freshmen Chasers may have to accept is they may not have anticipated all that comes with the playoff. So no matter how much they may have studied, this is one exam that’s tough to pass on the first try.
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