Friday, October 29, 2010

Chase Coverage: Talladega Preview

A pack during the spring race at Talladega. (John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
After six races, we have the tightest points battle in the history of the Chase. And where better to go next than perhaps the most unpredictable of tracks on the NASCAR circuit - Talladega - on the spookiest day of the year - Halloween.

The 2.66-mile superspeedway is a favorite among fans, but maybe not so much among the Chase drivers. You have as much of a chance of finishing in the top 5 as you do bringing your racecar home in an unrecognizable heap of sheet metal.

Some Chasers see Dega as an opportunity to catch up in points, while others hope to avoid "the big one" and simply survive. With only three races following it in the Chase, Talladega has the potential to make or break any of the top 3's chances for a title run.

Twelve of our contributors look at the Chase drivers' odds at Talladega and how they may fare in Sunday's lottery. Come back Tuesday to find out which drivers were "tricked" and which were "treated."

1. Jimmie Johnson - (Leader) - Rebecca Kivak
Out of all the tracks in the Chase, Talladega is probably the only one that gives points leader Jimmie Johnson heartburn. The wild nature of the 2.66-mile restrictor plate track is more a game of survival than smarts, and the four-time Sprint Cup champion has seen what it’s like to be on the losing end of this lottery. Seven out of his 17 starts here have ended in DNFs. This includes his last visit in the spring, when he wrecked with six laps to go, relegating him to a 31st-place finish.

Johnson’s average finish of 17.8 at the superspeedway is his lowest of the last four tracks in the Chase. His driver rating of 83.6 is the sixth-highest among the Chase field, unusual for a driver whom I’m used to writing leads all drivers in that area of loop data. He has four top-5 and seven top-10 finishes at the Alabama track.

While Talladega is not considered one of Johnson’s best tracks, the driver of the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet has one win (spring 2006) and four poles to his credit. Also worth noting is that in the past two years, Johnson has finished higher in the fall events than those in the spring: he crossed the finish line 6th in last year’s event and 9th in 2008. In 2007 Johnson brought home a pair of second-place finishes. In the fall 2006 race, Johnson was on his way to a top-2 finish when Brian Vickers attempted to bump-draft the No. 48 and instead spun him out, along with race leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. As a result, Johnson finished the race 24th.

Johnson has experienced the best and the worst at Dega, and he knows how fast things can change at the superspeedway. After Denny Hamlin sliced Johnson’s lead down to just 6 points after Martinsville, Johnson said, “You hate to see it vanish. I'm really trying to not be emotionally attached to things until we get out of Talladega. So much can happen at Talladega.”

Despite the unpredictability of Talladega, you can be sure the 48 team will do its best to stay out of trouble and preserve its points lead. I can’t help but remember when Johnson said on the radio toward the end of last year’s race, “We survived!” And if trouble does befall the 48, prepare to see Johnson “race like hell” in the final three races. 

2. Denny Hamlin - (-6) - Holly Machuga
After winning at Martinsville, Denny Hamlin heads to Talladega second in points and only six points behind Jimmie Johnson. He has seven wins as of Sunday, 13 top-fives, 16 top-10s and two poles so far this season.

Martinsville began the final five races of the season, and also began the better of the tracks for Hamlin. He has three top-fives and three top-10s with an average finish of 19.3 in nine races. He has a series-best running position of 13.8 and a series-best driver rating of 95.9. With the excellent finishes seen by the No. 11 team, I would not be surprised by a top-five this weekend.

Denny's strategy of getting top-10s the first five races and racing for the win in the last five has paid off so far. As long as he and the FedEx team keep up the momentum, you will see that team in victory lane more than once before the end of the season.

At this point, Jimmie Johnson should watch his back because Denny Hamlin is out to steal the points lead back. 

3. Kevin Harvick - (-62) - Amber Arnold
Kevin Harvick’s first Talledega win came in this year’s spring race. That finish was a much better finish than what happened to him at the previous Talledega race where Ryan Newman got airborne and landed upside down across Harvick’s hood.

It would be hard to say that Talledega is a good track for anyone being that it is such a wildcard, but in Harvick’s 19 races on the Alabama track he has an average finish of 15.5. Harvick is credited with one pole, four tops fives, eight top tens and an impressive zero DNF’s. Harvick has an 18th-best driver rating of 75.3. 

While his numbers are impressive, his competitors in the Chase are already a step ahead. Having a 62 point deficit going into Talledega Harvick has the best record on the 2.66 mile track. That is definitely something to be “Happy” about.   


4. Kyle Busch - (-172) - Lindi Bess


The #18 M&M’s Toyota Camry heads to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend with 42 other cars. 11 of which he shares the same dream. To become the NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion. Things don’t always work out the way you hoped but that doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel.

Kyle enters ‘Dega in 4th position, 172 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. Its improbable that Kyle can recover from the hits he’s taken during the first half of the Chase. However, its not impossible. It would require the #48, #11 and the #29 to really have a bad finishes. Since the 3 usually run together, you never know. Kyle would have to do somewhat better than in his last visit to the Superspeedway earlier this year, having qualified and finished in the top 10.

Historically, ‘Dega isn’t one of Kyle’s stronger tracks. With 1 win, 1 top 5 and 2 top 10’s. An Average running pos of 18.7, and Average finish of 23.2. He’s rated the 16th best driver with a rating of 79.7. He does carry with him 4 DNF’s,3 of which were crashes.

When asked if being a former race winner at Talladega offered any sort of advantage over the competition Busch said, "It doesn't matter at all. It's such a crapshot there in the last 20, 30, or 40 laps that you never really know who is going to win, what's going to happen, and where the wreck is going to come from."

Check out what Kyle had to say at NASCAR.com on Friday's Sound off



5. Jeff Gordon - (-203) - Genevieve Cadorette
Jeff Gordon was busy promoting his new sponsor AARP Drive for Hunger this week he also found out that DuPont will extend its sponsorship with him for a 19th season. DuPont has signed to be a primary sponsor for 14 Cup races in 2011.

His Talladega history includes six wins, the most of any active driver, as well as one pole, 13 top 5s and 16 top 10s. He leads his Chase competitors with 35 starts at the restrictor-plate track and has the fourth-highest driver rating of the field. Gordon is the most recent competitor to win the from the pole (spring 2007) as well as starting from the furthest back in the field to win a race (36th in 2000). He’s going to Talladega’s Amp Energy Juice 500 in 5th position for the Sprint Cup Chase, trailing the leader by 203 points.

He’ll need to finish the race with big points to stay in the 5th spot and to stay in contention for the chance to win. His hopes have diminished and even though he thinks his chances are over, there’s still a possibility he could win his 5th Cup of his career.

6. Carl Edwards - (-213) - Amanda Ebersole
Talladega ... wreckers or checkers is usually the only two ways to survive this track! Stats for drivers are rather scattered and even drivers who have ran well for many races seem to not escape the carnage on the track. Then we have strategy play, where drivers drop to the back of the field to be behind the crashes, and sometimes this works but other times it can bite them if they can’t make it through a pileup! The only good strategy is go hard, go for the win! No one remembers who finished 22nd at Talladega by trying to play it safe, but we do remember the great finishers!

OK, so with all that said, now onto Carl Edwards and his history at Dega! In his 12 races at Dega, Carl has seven top-five finishes, 17 top-10 finishes and no wins. Carl has led 15 laps at Talladega and has an average finish of 22nd. 

Crew chief Bob Osborne is taking the same car that was just raced in Daytona and finished sixth. The car will be spotting the Subway paint scheme this weekend. Bob’s thoughts on Talladega: “Talladega is challenging for a crew chief because so much of it is out of our control. We do the best we can to get the car handling well and create a smart pit strategy, but most of this race depends on the driver and the spotter. It’s always a tense race for everyone involved. We just have to hope to avoid the inevitable wrecks to be there at the end to contend for the win.”

Carl’s thoughts on heading to Dega, “I was a little nervous about Talladega while we were up there real close to the point lead, but now I’m really excited about it. I think in that race you could see a huge swing there. If we could go win the thing, or run top three and a couple of guys could be caught up in wrecks, the Chase could look a lot different. That’s Talladega and anything can happen. Man, I have a love-hate relationship with that place, but I am looking forward to it now and I hope that we can come out of there with a good finish."

For a side note: After the horrible, terrifying wreck in April 2009, when Carl was leading the race, I have to admit I get super anxious for this race. All I remember of that day was seeing Carl go spinning and screaming out loud, and that was my first fan moment that left me shattered! The horrific last-lap crash left Carl spinning in mid-air and crashing into the retaining fence, pieces of his car flying into the stands and injuring fans. Then to see Carl emerge from the car and run across the finish line, I cried, part happiness that he was OK and part sadness of the crash and that he did not win the race. I know Talladega is a great race, full of lead changes and excitement, but part of me will be on the edge of my seat just hoping for some small miracle that all drivers avoid any wrecks! 

7. Tony Stewart - (-236) - Unique Hiram
"The Big One" may become the changing of the guard for some of the Sprint Cup Chase contenders. After dropping to 7th in the points standings at the conclusion of last week's race in Martinsville, Tony Stewart and his race team are looking to rebound by having a better finishing spot once the checkered flag waves in Talladega on Sunday.

The #14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet race team and Stewart are headed to the track where he has captured one win, nine top 5s, 12 top 10s, an average finish of 14.8 in 23 races and holds the fifth-best average running position of 14.6. Additionally, he has the fifth-best driver rating of 89.0 and holds the fourth position of running the 49 fastest laps at this track.

Stewart was asked to rate himself as a restrictor-plate racer and his response was as follows: “Well, I’m not any happier about it than I’ve always been, but we’ve had a lot of success at restrictor-plate tracks, especially Talladega. We’ve run in the top-two there a gazillion times. I’m glad we’re halfway decent at it, but it’s still
always frustrating when you have to rely on what everybody else does. It’s not what you do. It’s what you do along with somebody else who decides that they’re going to follow you and help you. That’s the part that frustrates you as a driver.”

There is no doubt that the AMP Energy Juice 500 in Talladega, Ala., will be one of the most watched events this weekend because it is sure to be huge deal in who will be the top three drivers statistically fighting down to the finish in the last three races of the Sprint Cup Chase Series.

8. Jeff Burton - (-246) - Genna Short
By the numbers, Talladega seems to be one of the better tracks for Jeff Burton. Although the seasoned veteran has never had a win at the superspeedway in 33 starts, he has had four top 5s and 13 top 10s. His average running position is 17.1, the 12th best among active drivers, and though that may not seem like much, he still holds some impressive records at the 2.66-mile tri-oval.

For instance, he has 1,163 laps in the Top 15 (55.5%), which is the fifth-most, and holds the series record for green-lap passes at 4,322. So don’t think you’ll be catching the 31 car running near the back of the pack.

“I've run in the back and tried that but the two times I did it, I got into wrecks so I'm much more prone to try to lead some laps and run in the front pack,” says Burton about staying up front.

Quite a statement from a driver about a place where most of them just want to make it through the race relatively untouched and not be caught in “the big one,” but Jeff Burton doesn’t fear this beast. In fact, he sees it as an opportunity to advance in the standings.

“I look at it as an opportunity to go out and gain points you know, we're behind in points so I look at that as an opportunity. You know, when you're behind a little bit, you're looking for odd things to happen and Talladega's a place where odd things can happen.”

It is clear that he is not planning on letting Talladega get the best of him this weekend.

9. Kurt Busch - (-277) - Katy Lindamood
The 2004 Nextel Cup Champion has never won a restrictor plate race. He has come close a couple of times but has never been able to take home that checkered flag. Could Sunday's race a Talladega Superspeedway be his first restrictor plate win? You'll have to tune in to find out.

Heading into the Amp Energy Juice 500 Kurt Busch sits ninth in the points standings 277 behind leader Jimmie Johnson and though his chances of winning the Cup are slim at this point he still has a positive outlook. Earlier this week Busch said, "In every one of these races, I'm out there trying to learn something new. That's especially true every time the rules are tweaked and we change to a different package. The goal always remains the same, though, and that's to be there at the end of the race and positioned for a shot at it."

While the elder Busch does not have a Dega win to his credit Busch has performed well at the Alabama track in the past. In 19 starts Busch has an average finish of 12.8 and has recorded six top five finishes. Don't count him out this weekend as he looks to win his final restrictor plate race as driver as the "Blue Deuce."

10. Matt Kenseth - (-293) - Whitney Richards

Coming off a 15th place finish last weekend at Martinsville, Matt Kenseth and the Crown Royal Black Team head to Talladega Superspeedway in hopes of avoiding the ‘Big One’ and getting a good finish. In his 21 starts, Kenseth has three top-5’s and six top-10’s. He has an average starting position of 22.3 and an average finishing position of 18.7 at Talladega. He has had three DNFs (September 2003, April 2004, and October 2008) at the track. His best starting position is 2nd (April 2010), and his best finish is 3rd(October 2005). Kenseth has completed 3,733 or 3,977 laps and has led a total of 146 laps in his 21 starts. Kenseth comes to Talladega 10th in the standings, 293 points behind leader Johnson.

11. Greg Biffle - (-316) - Stacie Ball
“We started the season this year with a good run at Daytona and although Talladega is certainly different than Daytona despite them both being superspeedways, I am hoping that we can have that same sort of performance this weekend. We haven’t had a lot of luck at Talladega, but last year we had two top-10s there so it looks like we’re doing something right. If we can just get out of there with a top-10 finish I will be happy.” That's what Greg Biffle said of the race at Talladega Superspeedway this weekend on Halloween, in which he will be celebrating behind the wheel of the No. 16 3M/Manheim Ford Fusion.

After the race of doom at Martinsville Speedway, how do you come back from it? That is definitely the magical question for the 3M Ford this week. For someone who has driven 16 races at Talladega and has only one top 5 and two top 10s, you can see luck is really not on the side of the team. Yet we can hope the next four races we will see a big improvement.

“The superspeedway races are obviously unique races in that even if you have the best driver, the best pit crew and the fastest racecar, you can very easily get caught up in someone else’s accident and take the car home in pieces. Qualifying is not as important as it is at other tracks just because pit selection isn’t that crucial because the pit stalls are so big and no matter where you start you could have the lead one lap and be 20th the next lap. We had a couple of good finishes at Talladega last year so we’ll just go out there and do what we did then to try to get out of there with a top-10 finish.”

Last week when I got home and saw that Biffle was third on the grid, I was really hoping that start would bring some luck to the team. Maybe it was not the best of luck, yet it honestly showed me even the best of hope cannot bring the wins to the driver of my choice. I am a fan of my drivers, as people know. After seeing the great win a few weeks back at Kansas Speedway, I can't help but hope another win is in the future for Greg Biffle and the entire 3M team!

12. Clint Bowyer - (-406) - Amy McHargue
Coming into Talladega, Clint Bowyer's Chase dreams are done. Bowyer is 406 points off the lead, holding down 12th place in the Chase standings. Still 90 points back from 11th-place Greg Biffle, Clint has a lot of work to do this weekend to move up in the points.Bowyer will be looking for win number one at Talladega for his team this weekend – and what a season morale booster that would be! Clint has not yet won at Talladega but claims three top-10 finishes in his nine Cup Series starts at this venue.

When one looks at Clint's past performance at this track, it is evident that his performance has improved over his Cup career. His first four starts at Talladega resulted in no better than an 11th-place finish, whereas his last five Cup starts here have brought Bowyer three top 10s. With an average finish of 21.4, Clint has his work cut out for him and the #33 Richard Childress Racing Team. Working in his favor is his average finish on superspeedway tracks in general. He claims a 15.4 average finish at this kind of track ... maybe it just took Clint a few years to settle in here at 'Dega.



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