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Earnhardt, Johnson, Keselowski among drivers needing win at Talladega ... or suffer Chase elimination


Talladega’s eternal question: offense or defense?

Conventional wisdom says Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway will be a non-stop battle of lead changes and side-by-side racing thanks to the building pressure of Chase for the Sprint Cup eliminations. And at Talladega, those prognostic words are really code for lots of wrecked race cars.

But recent stats at Talladega during Chase races don’t illustrate competition laden with crashes and mistakes, at least for the first 180 laps of the scheduled 188. In fact, each 20-lap segment of the first 180 laps averages less than one caution per race.

The real issue comes in that final stretch to the checkered flag, with or without a green-white-checker finish. In that span, the last five Talladega Chase races are averaging a ballooned rate of 1.6 caution flags.

The reason for that is obvious: when the checkered flag nears — and the points are getting ready to be paid — aggression in the field ratchets up several notches. Suddenly the middle of the pack is jammed with drivers who know it’s go-time after playing a very conservative, safe game for most of the race.

But a funny thing happens in those last eight or so laps: the field struggles to overtake the leader. Talladega has had 325 lead changes in the last five Chase races and only seven of them have come after Lap 179.

The reasons for that aren’t completely clear. It could be due to more pronounced blocking at the front, or even that the increased number of cautions reduces passing opportunities.

But the implication of that stat may change how some drivers who are in a win-or-else scenario gravitate toward the front on Sunday. If they can’t pass late in the race, they better start moving to the front sooner.

Drivers facing must-win weekend

Four drivers — and probably a fifth — will be among that group who see Sunday’s race with one goal: get the win. And those drivers aren’t exactly slouches, either.

Kasey Kahne (eighth in Sprint Cup points with a single-point margin on the ninth-place cutoff), Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson all face a reality where the only way they can guarantee Chase advancement is by beating everyone else to the checkered flag. It’s undoubtedly a tenuous position for each but winning at the 2.66-mile track isn’t out of the question.

Among the five drivers are 12 Talladega wins and 27 top-5 finishes. Only Kasey Kahne hasn’t won at the superspeedway.

But regardless of the outcome, we still face a Chase scenario where several big names are going to be gone from contention when the Sunday sun sets. 

Earnhardt has a lot to overcome this weekend

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is fully cognizant of what this year has meant to his career, and that it marks the end of — with or without continued Chase advancement after Sunday. And he also knows that soon-to-be-gone crew chief Steve Letarte played a big role in making all of that — Daytona, two more wins and the routine top-5s — happen.

With that in mind, it’s hard to see a scenario where Earnhardt isn’t feeling strong internal pressure to re-assert his restrictor-plate dominance from the mid-2000s in a big way on Sunday. Despite all of the good he’s accomplished in 2014, falling out of the Chase after Talladega would feel like its too soon, as if something went unaccomplished.

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Earnhardt was resolute about that fact after a nightmare of a race at Charlotte last week.

“Go out there and win it," Earnhardt said of Talladega. "We can do it; we have won there a lot of times. I know what we need to do.”

A win would be a remarkable change in fortune for Earnhardt. He hasn’t won at the Alabama track in a decade and left the spring Talladega race in low spirits. In a point of honesty after the race, he told fans he felt he hadn’t appropriately raced at the end for a win.

"In the last 10 laps, I didn't do what I was supposed to do,” Earnhardt said on a podcast days after the spring race. “I know a lot of people are disappointed, and I'm disappointed that they're disappointed. I feel like I should have put on a better effort just for the people who come to watch us race. I feel I let a lot of people down. I'll have to live with that. I learned some pretty good lessons, some pretty hard lessons. Hopefully, we won't have a repeat of that again."

Terry Labonte making final Sprint Cup start

Two-time NASCAR champion Terry Labonte might cause a few double takes this weekend with the graphics placed on his No. 32 Ford. The right side of the car is designed to look like his Billy Hagan-owned, Piedmont Airlines-sponsored No. 44 from 1984 and the left side looks like his 1996 Hendrick Motorsports Kellogg’s No. 5.

It’s a neat tribute for Labonte, 57, and celebrates the two cars he drove en route to winning two Cup series championships. The unique design will also be the final car he’ll strap in to after announcing Friday on NASCAR’s satellite radio channel that he’s retiring full-time after Sunday’s race.

Labonte stepped down from full-time driving after the 2004 season and has raced with decreasing regularity since. With 22 career wins and a one-time holder of NASCAR’s all-time consecutive starts record, Labonte is destined for a spot in the sport’s Hall of Fame.

Should he not make it to victory lane on Sunday, Labonte’s last Cup win the (2004 Southern 500 at Darlington) will remain a fitting one — an old-school driver winning an old-school race.

Keselowski, Kenseth still at odds

If you thought Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski had smoothed over their disagreement that ended in a headlock last week at Charlotte, think again. Friday at Talladega, Kenseth continued to voice his displeasure with Keselowski’s in-race and post-race actions.

“Brad clearly saw me roll outside,” Kenseth said of a late restart that started the feud, “And he hung a right on purpose and ran me right in the wall and ruined my night and possibly took us out of Chase contention. 

“I was mad enough about that and to come down afterward and have your stuff off and your net down and pull those high school stunts playing car wars after the race was just absolutely unacceptable.”

Kenseth also said that Keselowski “greatly exaggerated” contact Kenseth made with Keselowski’s right-front during a late-race caution, and that camera evidence proved it.

Keselowski was fined $50,000 by NASCAR after the incident for his aggressive driving in the garage area while sparring with Kenseth’s teammate, Denny Hamlin. Kenseth later emerged on the scene to surprise Keselowski, grabbing him around the neck and starting a melee between Penske Racing haulers that was quickly ended without any punches thrown.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller

Photo by Action Sports, Inc.