Pretenders, contenders and potential winners as NASCAR's Chase moves south to Talladega
With the WWE Attitude-Era finale to last weekend’s Bank of America 500 in Charlotte, you’d be hard pressed to remember how the first 25 laps were obscured by either a college football game or (of all things) a preseason NBA game. No chance of that happening this weekend, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup race runs on Sunday — and, of course, it’s Talladega. With what is essentially a national holiday for NASCAR fans, the track that brought you the first 200 mph lap, the fastest qualifying lap established over 25 years ago, and some of the most harrowing moments in the sport’s history, this race will dictate which eight drivers advance into the Eliminator Round (can we just ditch the marketing gimmicks and refer to it as the Third Round already?).
Last week I picked Kyle Larson to win for the second straight race and he was looking pretty solid, having run in the top three most of the night — until he knocked the body off the car with less than 30 laps to go. Kevin Harvick went on to win, propelling him into the Eliminator Round and with no worries about wadding it up in this weekend’s coming carpocalypse at Talladega.
It was much-needed medicine for the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team and crew chief Rodney Childers; they’ve had the fastest car in virtually every race this year only to be undone by pit miscues, mechanical failures and … well, more pit miscues. With that win in the bag they are free to race for the win to prevent four formidable foes from advancing into the next round — or just drive around a half-lap behind the pack and escape potential injury or having to build another car prior to Speedweeks.
Picking contenders this week is a total crapshoot, and that’s not just a cop-out due to the fact that a 30-car wreck could occur at any moment. You have drivers who need to win to advance to the next round of the Chase as well as field-fillers-turned-legit-contenders given the nature of the current superspeedway package and number of rent-a-car and plate-engine programs throughout the field.
There are four drivers who legitimately need to win if they want to advance into the next round; three of those are champions, all have won here, and one’s name is synonymous with Talladega.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson find themselves tied for 12th of the 12 drivers currently eligible in the Chase. The duo has totaled six 2014 wins — including the Daytona 500 — but separate calamities at Kansas coupled with strategy at Charlotte that just didn’t pan out have been their undoing.
Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski are next on the chopping block, with both coincidentally winning at Talladega in 2012. Keselowski won the title that year, while Kenseth escaped the field-blocking pile-up caused when Tony Stewart tried to slam the door on the fast-closing draft duo of Casey Mears and Michael Waltrip.
Interesting how those three happened to be squarely in the middle of the post-race fracas at Charlotte last week, no?
The other principal in Saturday Night’s Main Event was Denny Hamlin, who made his way into the Chase by way of winning at Talladega in May. Word on the street is TRD has some newfound plate power to match its unrestricted engine’s power boost. Hamlin’s seventh-place spot remains tenuous at best, though fairly safe given he is 15 points from first. Hopefully he won’t have to be held back from hurling any towels this weekend.
Two drivers in this group need to be recognized as many — myself included — felt they would have by now been eliminated, but aside from crashes out of their control on Sunday, look to be in good shape to advance.
Ryan Newman’s No. 31 team (and RCR in general) has basically been a non-issue on anything other than a superspeedway or short track this year. Earnhardt-Childress engines and Richard Childress Racing Chevrolets have a bit of a history here, and as Newman sits fourth in points, 11 out of first, he is about to have the ultimate comeback for Jimmie Johnson following their verbal exchange following the race at Michigan in August.
Kyle Busch has continued his Truck and Nationwide series dominance this season, but the Cup side has been left wanting aside from the early-season win at Fontana. Publicized bickering between he and crew chief Dave Rogers now seems long forgotten. Making it through the first round of eliminations — and surviving Kansas — the No 18 team sits second in points, just six back from leader and locked-in transferer Joey Logano.
While I would never considering anything “safe” at Talladega until the checkered flag falls (and even then …) if the aforementioned drivers can avoid what everyone believes to be coming, they have enviable-enough records at the upcoming tracks so that a Final Four berth at Homestead isn’t out of the question.
This section could have well included Brad Keselowski had there been a points penalty associated with his garage-area antics Saturday night. With “just” a $50,000 fine for the incident, the 2012 champion finds himself 10th in points, 50 markers out of first, and 19 points from the final transfer position (eighth). It will take a win or someone else’s wreck for Keselowski to transfer. Keselowski took himself out while leading in the spring here, driving across Danica Patrick’s nose in the early going (or she moved up, your call). Twenty-one cars finished on the lead lap that day so if you factor in the one-point-per-position scoring, three-point bonus for a win, a point for leading a lap, and a point for leading the most laps — the 48-point maximum one can earn — just merely scoring a top-5 or top-10 finish will not be enough without some attrition.
Team Penske is fielding an entry for Ryan Blaney this weekend while Terry Labonte and Michael McDowell will also be in Fords to provide some drafting assistance for Keselowski, who may find himself a few friends short after Charlotte. With Logano already locked into the next round, the Penske braintrust has made it known that the main goal is to get the No. 2 through.
With that in mind, Carl Edwards has been flying under the radar (fifth in points), but has a well-known past with Keselowski. Things here have been smoothed over for the most part, but as Edwards prepares to depart the Ford camp, any sort of Blue Oval brotherhood between the two just may not exist on Sunday.
Keselowski’s new arch-nemesis, Matt “The Cambridge Crippler” Kenseth, sits in ninth place, one position behind the cutoff mark currently held by Kasey Kahne. The No. 5 team whistled by the graveyard at Dover, holding off AJ Allmendinger and the No. 47 JTG Daugherty bunch by two points, allowing them to slip into the second round.
While Hendrick Motorsports got all four of its cars into the Chase, three are on the precipice, with Jeff Gordon seemingly safe, 14 points out of the lead in sixth. Still, he can’t afford to be swept up in a crash this weekend.
Flip a coin, draw straws, blindfold yourself and spin the cylinder. Other than Harvick and Logano, no one is truly safe. There’s a maximum 47-point swing, and with just 26 points from eighth (Kahne) to 12th (Johnson and Earnhardt), everyone is at the mercy of the perils that come with racing at big, bad Talladega.
While many predicted chaos last year, it didn’t really happen. Austin Dillon got punted and sent skyward on the final lap, but only he, Casey Mears (who launched him) and Juan Montoya were taken out in the crash. That could very well happen again — except that there are too many good cars that need to finish well. And when everyone races nice for so long, it just means that there are that many more cars trying to fill the same space on the track with less than 10 laps to go.
So as in life, someone has to win and someone has to lose. Well, technically four people have to lose, and following the GEICO 500, someone's premiums are bound to skyrocket. While this race defines the term SWAG (Silly Wild Ass Guess), here are the leaves as I read them for the weekend:
Jimmie Johnson: Hearing the bicker-banter between driver and crew chief last weekend reminded me of Loudon, 2011, when Johnson told Chad Knaus that “your cheerleading sucks” and asked that he kindly shut up and let him driver the car. Anything can happen here, but given the lack of momentum that typically breeds bad ju-ju, the quest for seven just may end in Eastaboga.
Brad Keselowski: Amid the screams of “you hit me under yella!” the odds-on favorite to make it to the Final Four at Homestead ran aground in the Queen City. Charlotte has proved a pivotal race for the No. 2 squad in recent years, having won there in 2013 and surviving in 2012 when fuel strategy didn’t quite pan out. The blown tire at Kansas a couple weeks back may prove to be their undoing, and with the brouhaha from last weekend, Keselowski’s quest to win two titles in three years looks to be going flat (like his tire at Kansas). The extra Penske car of Blaney may not be enough to keep the 2 in contention. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say they settle in at the back of the pack and attempt a “Dale Jarrett Charge” to the front.
Denny Hamlin: Just a random guess here. Somebody is going to be the victim of the 30-car melee and Hamlin has a way of finding misfortune in the Chase. Honestly, any of them could, but what are the chances it involves he and Keselowski?
Kasey Kahne: At 32 points in arrears, if Kahne does advance to the next round it would give purists, pundits and anyone who’s watched more than three races this year evidence and ammunition as to how this new Chase format does nothing to legitimize the notion of a full-season champion.
Predicted Winner: Jamie McMurray
As much as this race is a toss-up, I think you’ll see the strongest team since the Chase started take this one. Chip Ganassi Racing has been the class of the field almost every week, and Jamie McMurray has established himself as one of the best plate racers of the past decade. Don’t think so? Since 2007 he has two wins at Daytona — including the 2010 Daytona 500 — and a pair of victories at Talladega. Another driver to keep an eye on is Greg Biffle, who finished second here in the spring, and despite the struggles Roush Fenway has faced this season, the Fords always show up to party on plate tracks.
Why am I not picking any Chase contenders? Because I’m having a flashback to that final lap in 2012 when the entire field got collected coming through Turn 4. While I don’t hope for a repeat of that, I can’t shake the feeling that, based on last weekend’s antics at Charlotte coupled with the typically-sedate Kansas suddenly becoming the turning point in the championship battle, it’s going to make Talladega that much more of a freak show.
Follow Vito Pugliese on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.