A week after Bill Elliott won his 10th race of the season to build a commanding lead in the standings, Darrell Waltrip turned up the heat in the way he knew best -- his mouth.
Waltrip had a fast car in 1985, but that wasn't good enough. So he got into Elliott's head.
Six days after Elliott won the Southern 500, Waltrip won at Richmond, Va. When he got out of his car, he hummed the theme song to Jaws. He then promised to work on Elliott's confidence by playing mind games, suggesting he would be circling every week like a hungry shark.
The mind games worked. Although Elliott won a total of 11 races, he struggled in the final two months and lost the championship by 101 points.
Jimmie Johnson might not be humming, but he's certainly menacing. And unlike Waltrip, Johnson's mind games come with his relentless preparation and victories. That was never more obvious than at Bristol, Tenn., two weeks ago when Kurt Busch led the most laps but was beaten at the end of the race by Johnson by his team's decision to change four tires during the final pit stop. Busch got out of his car, slammed a bottle of water into his car and said, "To lose to the 48 (Johnson) sucks, but that's the way it goes. Anybody but the 48.' "
In February, another late pit call helped Johnson win at Southern California. That prompted Kevin Harvick to say Johnson had a huge golden horse shoe.
"Absolutely, we're in his head, maybe not everyone's," Johnson said of Busch's reaction. "Everybody deals with things differently. But if you go through and read any press remarks or interviews, if someone talks that they're not worried about us, it's already in there, which is great."
Johnson finished ninth Monday at Martinsville Speedway. His team struggled all weekend to find speed, but even on his worst day, he still posted a top-10 finish.
Johnson is the four-time defending series champion, and he's won three of the first six races this year. Every time his Chevrolet is on the track, every team watches. Johnson is both a distraction and a conundrum for everyone who's trying to catch him.
"There's no doubt that when someone has been as dominant as they've been, you sit there and scratch your head and say, 'Man, what do they have? What are they doing? What do we need to do differently?' " Jeff Gordon said. "And they're just that good of a race team."
The pressure to keep pace with Johnson has Kyle Busch questioning his own race team. He refuses to take any of the responsibility for not winning this year, instead blaming his Joe Gibbs Racing team.
"Everybody has been asking me why I haven't been running good. Is it my head? Is it because I'm running a truck team? Is it this, is it that?" he said. "I'm driving my butt out every single week. I can only go as fast as my car will let me go."
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.