Learn to deal with the public and the media

The more successful you are in racing, the more the public will want toknow about you, and the less control you'll have over what they findout.

Need proof?

Do you think anyone would have cared about Kurt Busch's confrontationwith police in Arizona if he were still running in the Southwest Tour?Or who cared if Kasey Kahne wore boxers or briefs when he was racing anopen-wheel car on dirt tracks around Seattle? Thousands of young womendo now.

There are two ways to deal with the media. Tony Stewart is well versedin both. You can look at them as unnecessary adversaries, or considerthem allies who can reach hundreds of thousands of fans with a fewkeystrokes on a laptop or with 20 seconds of video on Sunday night.

If you make it to the professional ranks, you'll probably make the newsone way or the other. But as a driver, you have some influence on howthe story reads.

Play it straight with the media. They'll be in Victory Circle when youwin, but when you have a bad night and your car comes in on a hook witha blown engine and a twisted cage, be prepared to tell them whathappened and how you feel about it.

If you are uneasy dealing with the media, hire someone to help you getcomfortable. If you can't afford that, find a member of the press corpsyou can trust and have him or her explain what we need and why we needit. If we show up at a bad time, ask us to come back later . . . butthen be sure to be available when you say you will be.

Not getting enough ink or air time? Take a reporter out for coffee or abeer. Most local reporters know very little about auto racing and areintimidated by it. They don't ask questions because they don't know whatto ask.

If you have a sponsor that wants you to interact with the public, spendsome time during the off-season in a community college speech class or agroup such as Toastmasters. It will help you feel more comfortable withthe media and fans, which is really what a sponsor pays for.

--J.F.B.

Develop a program for physical conditioning

People who race for a living generally don't have a problem keeping inshape. Between racing on weekends and testing during the week, mostdrivers get all the exercise they need. The muscles they are developingare exactly the ones they need to use inside the car.

"Given equal cars, I'll put my money on the driver who is in shape overthe one who is 30 pounds overweight," says Russ Salerno, a former NFLkicker who works with Nextel Cup teams on driver and crew conditioning.

Sure, he says, an out-of-shape driver can win from time to time, but atthe end of the season, you can bet the guy who is in the best shape hasthe best shot at the title.

Salerno's advice: Cut out the junk food, lift weights to get in shape(lift less weight but do more repetitions), and build up stamina. Gofrom weight to weight without taking a break, and run or use a treadmillto get your heart rate up.

Developing stamina is important. It doesn't mean much in the first fewlaps when everyone is fresh, but it will when the laps begin to winddown and a driver needs all the skill he can muster. If a driver beginsto turn erratic lap times or make mistakes near the end of the race, hehas lost his ability to concentrate. It can mean his judgement isn't ascrisp as it should be, his ability to adjust to changing conditions iscompromised, and he won't be able to capitalize on opportunities to dobetter in the closing laps.

Learn how to stay at the top

If you do everything on this list, will you make it to Daytona? Only ifyou are talented, dedicated, single-minded, and you create your ownopportunities to succeed. And even then there is no guarantee.

Luck? You make your own luck.

You knock on doors, sweep floors, and do the work no one else wants todo. And you don't give up. If it doesn't work out, it won't be becauseyou didn't try your best.

But if you do make it to the professional ranks, then what? Simple.Don't forget how you got there. Remember the basics. Remember the fans.Remember the media, your sponsors, and your family. Remember to behumble in victory and gracious in defeat.

And remember when you were on the outside of the chain-link fence,looking in.

--J.F.B.

Our Nextel Cup Picks for 2006

Here are the 10 drivers selected by the staff and contributors of StockCar Racing as likely candidates to qualify for the NASCAR Chase thisseason.

#1 Tony Stewart

OK, so we weren't too imaginative or prone to risk-taking with thispick. Simply put, we expect Stewart to repeat this scene several timesduring his career, starting this year. What more can you say whenever adriver is at the top of his sport and the top of his game in the mannerof Stewart, the defending Nextel Cup champion? In terms of pure talent,he's the best stock car driver out there today. After returning home toIndiana last year, he also appears to have his personal life (read:personality) back in order. And he's a pure racer, respectful of hisroots (he bought famed dirt track Eldora Speedway a while back) and hiselders (he hangs with Red Farmer). Also, he and Jeff Gordon representthe prototypical modern driver, developed at a young age to reach thetop.

#2 Greg Biffle

Two of our committee members selected Biffle to be the Nextel Cup champthis season, and there's a good chance he'll claim the title. He'sbecome one of the most savvy drivers in NASCAR over the past twoseasons, and he has titles in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series and itsBusch Series, so he knows how to chase a championship. With RoushRacing's status as one of the top two teams in NASCAR, there's littlewonder that many expect Biffle to be in the hunt. When it involvesunderstanding equipment, perhaps no driver today is as knowledgeable asthis former car builder.

#3 Jeff Gordon

Gordon dropped out of the Top 10 last season for the first time since1993, but don't expect that to become a pattern. Coming off a pointsfinish of Eleventh, armed with a new crewchief who took the reins latelast season, and supported by one of the top teams in racing, Gordonwill regain some of his old magic. The dominant seasons of double-digitwins are behind him, but a championship- contending campaign will proveGordon and Hendrick Motorsports are still stout. Like Stewart, Gordon'searly career is a study in how to mold a young driver.

#4 Carl Edwards

Edwards burst onto the scene with a stellar '05 campaign, complete withfour wins, two poles, and a finish of Third in points. Backed by RoushRacing, expect more of the same in 2006. And is there a moreenthusiastic, enter- taining driver in the sport today? Edwards provesthat good guys do win, and the former dirt track ace has demonstratedremarkable car control.




#5 Jimmie Johnson

Johnson and crewchief Chad Knaus have been close for the past fourseasons, with title-contending campaigns of Fifth, Second, Second, andFifth, but they can't seem to be able to cross the threshold into a Cupchampionship. They'll still be strong in 2006, but another finish ofFifth may be in the works. The former motocross racer developed skillsearly in life that have served him well in stock car racing.




#6 Ryan Newman

Although he won eight poles and one race, Newman endured a relativelyquiet campaign last season. His Sixth-Place finish in points was histhird finish of Sixth in his four seasons on the circuit, though, andlook for more of the same in 2006. The guy can flat-foot it like noother driver today, as evidenced by his 35 poles over the past fiveseasons. Look for more wins--and poles--from the No. 12 team thisseason. He learned car control during a stellar open-wheel career,including a successful run in Quarter Midgets.

#7 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

OK, so he was a non-factor as the '05 season came to a close, with afinish of Nineteenth in points and just one win. But with formercrewchief Tony Eury Jr. back atop the pit box, is there any reason toexpect Junior to suffer through another lackluster season in 2006? Hedeveloped his talents on the short tracks of the two Carolinas, learningabout cars and adapting to new situations.




#8 Kasey Kahne

After a much ballyhooed rookie season, Kahne and his EvernhamMotorsports team failed to turn in a superstar performance last year,although some expected one. His finish of Twenty-Third in points, withone win and two poles, offered enough hope that one of our committeepicked this team as high as Third in 2006. Evernham will get things ontrack--eventually--but we're being generous with our selection of Eighthin points. Nonetheless, the former open-wheel star has adapted quicklyto stock cars.




#9 Kurt Busch

OK, so Busch finished the '05 season amid controversy (is that reallyany surprise?) and he is with a new team this season, but nobody candispute his talent. Rusty Wallace finished his career with a pointsfinish of Eighth with Busch's new team, so is there any reason to doubtthat Busch can keep the Roger-Penske-owned No. 02 in contention thisseason? The former Legends Car driver learned from his father, ashort-track racer who molded his sons into Cup stars.




#10 Matt Kenseth

This 2003 Cup champion goes about his business with laser focus. He'sunassuming off the track, but a top talent behind the wheel. He finishedSeventh last season, just 181 points out of First, so look for anothersolid performance this time around. He and crewchief Robbie Reiser havegiven Roush Racing one of the top combinations in the sport in recentseasons. Kenseth developed his driving skill on the short tracks ofWisconsin.

Others who received votes are Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Casey Mears,Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, Brian Vickers, Elliott Sadler, and DennyHamlin.