My Brain on NASCAR: ‘It Factor’ easy to spot, hard to define

In sports, as in any other entertainment field, it seems we are always looking for what some call the next big thing, that actor or athlete who possesses the elusive “It Factor” necessary not only to rise to the top of one’s area of expertise, but to make the rest of the world take notice, and want to come along for the ride.

When five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson spun out and hit the wall about midway through the Oct. 21 race at Kansas Speedway, the day looked like a lost cause. The rear end of the No. 48 Chevy looked like it had been put not only through the ringer but through a can crusher, and I’m pretty sure most people assumed that Johnson’s day was, for the most part, done.

His crew chief, Chad Knaus, begged to differ. As methodically as work can be performed in a very limited amount of time, the team made repairs to the car during a series of pit stops under caution, while Knaus employed a little psychological reinforcement along with the structural kind.

“There’s nothing wrong with that thing,” he told Johnson via radio. “You just might have a little trouble looking out the back window.”

NASCAR drivers don’t exactly have enough time to clamber out of the car and hang around watching the repair process during races, so Johnson took his crew chief at his word, rallying to drive something that looked like it was literally held together with duct tape and optimism to a top 10 finish. In large part, he accomplished this because he believed that he could.

We have seen this scenario many times with the No. 48 team. When things seem bleak, Knaus pulls something out of his magical toolbox of tricks and somehow saves the day, frequently even managing to win the race in the process. Chad Knaus has It.

The It Factor is a pure joy to behold. Watching guys like Michael Jordan, Dale Earnhardt and Tom Brady compete over the years has stirred up those old feelings we had when we were kids, believing that straw really could be spun into gold and a seemingly ordinary boy with a positive attitude and a polyester cape could become a super man.

We know It when we see It, but what is It?

Before the green flag waved at Kansas, ESPN’s broadcast team had an interesting discussion regarding the drivers still in contention to win the 2012 title. Who, they wondered, has the combination of talent, determination and luck necessary to go all the way? Who, they asked, has the It Factor?

Two extremely well-produced feature segments focused on Tony Stewart, the reigning champ, and Clint Bowyer, winner of the prior week’s Chase race and a Kansas native.

Their profiles couldn’t have been more different. Bowyer’s film crew followed him around as he visited the gas stations, luncheonettes and memorabilia shops of his youth, slapping backs, telling jokes and fondly reminiscing about the town that supported him and clearly regards him as its favorite son. Stewart’s segment featured plenty of helmet-throwing, steering wheel-pounding footage from the early days of his career, interspersed with his own surprisingly frank and insightful comments about the things that literally drive this driver. He compared his life to a Thanksgiving dinner, where he wanted to cram his plate to overflowing.

The final impression was that Bowyer, who is still a legitimate contender for the championship, is the type of fun and laid-back guy who would have a beer with you, and if things got heated, might pour it over your head, causing you some minor inconvenience. In a similar situation, it was implied that Stewart might just eat your head like a beer nut and end your day.

Bowyer has something, but Stewart has It.

We haven’t seen a first-time champion in NASCAR since 2006, when Jimmie Johnson won the first of his five big trophies. As things stand heading into the seventh Chase event at Martinsville Speedway, we seem to have only four real contenders left in addition to Johnson: Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Bowyer, and Kasey Kahne. None of the four has ever won a Cup Series title.

So although I’m sticking with my January 2012 prediction that Johnson will take number six, this season is far from over. Something about the look in Keselowski’s eye, and the tone of Hamlin’s voice, has me feeling a little squirmy, bringing to mind that hilariously ambiguous old quote, “Something’s gonna happen.”

Something is definitely gonna happen. We just don’t know what – or more importantly, who – “It” will be.

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