DOVER, Del. — Denny Hamlin’s admission that he’s seeing a sports psychologist is much more significant for NASCAR than it would be for an athlete in any other pro sport. Decades went by before this country generally accepted mental therapy without dismissing the patient as either weak or insane. And while NASCAR deserves credit for coming a long way, when it comes to social awareness the sport historically tends to finish just behind a David Stremme start-and-park.
There’s still a take-care-of-your-problems-yourself mentality around NASCAR that could make a driver feel like Tony Soprano, needing to sneak off to Dr. Melfi’s office — or take a break from therapy altogether — so as not to alarm the rest of the “family.”
I have no idea what Kurt Busch needs to be a happy, content, successful human being. But I wanted to ask him Saturday. He seemed the most logical driver to ask whether he would ever consider going Hamlin’s route, considering his on-track meltdowns (highlighted by him having to be restrained from going after a reporter at Richmond) combined with a pending divorce and a new relationship in the middle of his quest to give Roger Penske his first Sprint Cup title. There’s a lot going on in that noggin.
Not wanting to surprise him by blurting out what one might take as a loaded question in the middle of a news conference, I asked a team representative following qualifying if I could ask Busch in a private moment. He reacted as if I was one of those Howard Stern flunkies who crash fundraisers to ask Tom Hanks what color underwear he has on. He literally gave me “the hand” of dismissal before scurrying off.
Now, one of the best parts of therapy is that it’s nobody’s business but your own. Busch has no obligation to tell me or anybody else if he has or would consider a psychologist.
I just hope the reaction I got isn’t an example, in microcosm, of how the garage looks as such issues. When a fair question gets such a huffy response, it reflects a mindset that even discussing what could be a good idea for Busch is taboo. Might others who would normally seek help instead internalize because the thought of getting help — as opposed to taking the steel-jawed John Wayne route — is so repugnant when you drive cars 200 mph for a living?
Busch won Sunday, and I sincerely hope Victory Lane is therapeutic enough for him. But he’s still uncontrollable when times are bad, and acts eerily robotic and programmed when he’s supposedly in a good mood. If positive reinforcement from team members, business associates and loved ones only tame the beast until the next calamity, then it’s at least feasible that they’re unintentionally doing more harm than good.
Busch has to be able to endure tough questions from the media. More importantly, maybe he needs some from the people inside his bubble, too.