Skirts and Scuffs Takes on the Chase: Talladega – The Riskiest Race of the Season

2011TalladegaApr_NSCS Race Four wide finish Jimmie Johnson wins
Another exciting finish like this (April 2011) would be an exciting way to highlight
the Chase this weekend. Credit: Jerry Marland/Getty Images for NASCAR

The sixth race of the Chase, the pivotal halfway mark, is also the wild card. Talladega can be a race that invokes fear in drivers and crew chiefs. The level of uncertainty is high due to the unpredictable nature of restrictor plate racing, whether it's the two-car tandems or pack racing. The recent rule changes up the ante even more.

The Chase drivers have a varied level of success at the track nicknamed Dega. We will recap all 12 drivers for you, in order by their standing in the points and with their Talladega stats.

1. Carl Edwards - Edwards says Dega is tough - By LJ Cloud
Top 5s: 1, Top 10s: 4, Wins: 0

Carl Edwards leads the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, sitting 5 points ahead of Kevin Harvick. Edwards and the Roush-Fenway No. 99 team have only one win this season, back in March at Las Vegas, but he's scored 16 top fives and 22 top 10s for an average finish of 10th. Out of 31 races, he's lead in 20 of them for 714 laps total.

Edwards finished third in last week's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte, and has finished no worse than eighth in the five races of the Chase so far. With that kind of consistent performance, his chances to win the championship look good if he gets through this weekend's race at Talladega without incident, but his record at one of the least predictable tracks on the circuit is less than stellar. In 14 starts he has only one top 5, four top 10s and an average finish of 20.9.

Crew chief Bob Osborne said, “I think everybody worries about Talladega because of the style of racing that goes on there. 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’re taking the same car we raced at Daytona in July and Talladega in April, so we know it’s a pretty good car.  We just have to hope to avoid the inevitable wrecks to be there at the end to contend for the win.”

What's Edwards' take? “I don’t know how Talladega will play out. I think it’s going to be tougher. There’s going to be more of a chance for mistakes, more of a chance for having wrecks and engine trouble.I think it’s just going to be more difficult because you’ll have to swap the lead more, and there will just be more guys trying to match their bumpers up and getting frustrated.I think it’s going to be more in the driver’s hands too, so I think that’s good. I think it’ll be better. The harder it is at Talladega, the better it is.”

2. Kevin Harvick - On the cusp of a championship - By Amanda Ebersole
Top 5s: 6, Top 10s: 10, Wins: 1

"Happy" Harvick has the stats when you head to the great gamble of Talladega; his talent lies is knowing how to avoid the mayhem on track.

In a total of 21 starts at Talladega Superspeedway, Harvick has scored one win, six top-5 and 10 top-10 finishes. With an average starting position of 22.5 and an average finish of 14.3, Harvick will be in contention for a strong run – if not a win this weekend.

"For whatever reason, we've just always had a good plate program at RCR and when you have good cars, it makes it a lot easier to have success,” said Harvick, speaking on what has made Dega such a success for him. “We'll stick with our teammates and see where we fall at the end."

3. Matt Kenseth - Headed into Dega with momentum of a win - By Lacy Keyser
Top 5s: 3, Top 10s: 6, Wins: 0

Matt "The Brat" Kenseth looks to be coming into Talladega with some great momentum after his win last weekend under the lights at Charlotte. Kenseth looks to be on fire as he sits third in the point standings - could this be his year?  Kenseth will be using the same chassis he used at Daytona. I think and feel Kenseth is coming into this weekend on a high note; after his third win of the season, I’d say look out for that No. 17 car.

Kenseth on racing at Talladega: “It’s kind of different doing a team-style race because you can’t do it by yourself at these superspeedway tracks anymore, you need a partner in order to have a good race.  If you win or finish second, you know the other guy was just as responsible for your finish as you were in a way, so it’s definitely different.  We had a great finish last weekend so we’ll take the momentum and just try to keep getting the best finishes we can in these final five weekends of the season for our No. 17 team.”

4. Kyle BuschWill it be a trick or treat for the M&Ms' Halloween Toyota at Talladega? - By Carol D’Agostino
Top 5s: 1, Top 10s: 2, Wins: 1

Kyle Busch comes to the Good Sam Club 500 in fourth place just 18 points behind Carl Edwards. His second-place finish at Charlotte not only gained him four spots in the standings, but perhaps a little confidence and momentum, especially since he led a race-high 111 laps, working his way through the field after starting in the rear due to an engine change.

Unfortunately his performance at Talladega Superspeedway has been far from stellar. In his 13 starts at the track, although he has led 134 laps he has also suffered a whopping five DNFs and an average finish of 24.2. Last spring he crashed out of the race at lap 144 to finish 35th. Surviving Sunday’s race relatively unscathed will be important for Busch to have a solid run at his first Sprint Cup championship.

Finding a strong drafting partner will be another factor. “I’ve drafted well with a lot of people over the past, but I would say (Juan Pablo) Montoya helped me win the race I won at Talladega a couple of years ago. Jimmie (Johnson) is always pretty good to draft with. My brother, as well, but many more than that. It just all depends on which other cars end up working well with your car.”

5. Tony Stewart - Successful at Dega despite just one win - By Holly Machuga 
Top 5s: 9, Top 10s: 12, Wins: 1

Twenty-five races and only one win at Talladega for Tony Stewart? You might be a little bit surprised by that, but he has proven to be successful at Talladega in the past, leading 270 laps at this historic track. He also has an average start of 17.5 and an average finish of 15.5.

After all, Smoke could still go for this championship, right? Two back-to-back wins and only 24 points behind the leader is not too shabby!

6. Brad Keselowski - The underdog of the Chase - By Katy Lindamood
Top 5s: 1, Top 10s: 3, Wins: 1

Twenty-five points is a big deficit for any driver to make up. Not only does the driver have to finish 25 positions ahead of the current points leader, but the other drivers ahead of him in the standings also have to finish near the tail of the field. Good thing the Sprint Cup Series is headed to Talladega this weekend, where anyone can win. Brad Keselowski captured his first career victory in Talladega two years ago, but that was overshadowed by the horrific crash that sent Carl Edwards careening into the catchfence on the final lap.

Sunday's race at Talladega will mark Keselowski's sixth trip to the Alabama track and his fourth since joining Penske racing in 2010. In his previous three races in Penske equipment, Keselowski has one top-10 finish and two finishes of 33rd and 34th, but that doesn't mean he's out for the count this weekend. The Miller Lite team has proved time and again that they have what it takes to win, even when the odds are against them. Although the No. 2 may not end the season atop the standings driver and team are determined to get as close to the top as possible. As the underdog they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

“You really have to pay attention to how the race unfolds at Talladega. There are times when you need to be patient. There are times when you need to keep your head about you and race smart. But you are going to have to be aggressive at the end. Those are three elements of restrictor-plate racing that I work on throughout the race. I learned that from Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. He gets a lot of the credit for the kind of racer that I am on the plate tracks.”

7. Kurt Busch - Headed to Talladega with high hopes - By Amanda Ebersole
Top 5s: 6, Top 10s: 13, Wins: 0

Kurt Busch is hopeful headed to Talladega. With 13 top-10 finishes in 21 races and an average finish of 13.9, Busch should be upfront and battling for a win on Sunday.

“Talladega is a place where you can have a good day and it can turn sour pretty quick. We just hope to make the right moves strategy-wise, make the right moves out on the track as far as drafting. If we can get a nice top five, and others find trouble, then we're right back in this Chase,” said Busch.

8. Jimmie Johnson - Looking to redeem himself after last week - By Genevieve Cadorette
Top 5s: 5, Top 10s: 9, Wins: 2 

Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson heads into the fifth race of the 2011 Chase at Talladega Superspeedway for the Good Sam Club 500 eighth in points.

Although there's a lot to be concerned about, Johnson remains focused, driven and motivated to succeed as best as he can. With a team of guys who have not won a championship with Johnson, there have been mistakes, but the commitment and hard work these boys put in to the 48 car shine. Last weekend, after an unfortunate crash with 18 laps to go during the Bank of America 500, Johnson did not finish a Chase race and had to settle for a 34th-place finish. It was a devastating crash, yet he was lucky to walk away unscathed. His crash was eerily similar to that of the late Dale Earnhardt and because of safety barriers as well as the five-point harness and specially designed seats, Johnson did not suffer broken bones or contusions and didn't have a concussion. He told media that he was thankful for safe racecars, safe walls, softer walls and was thankful everything did its job. He knows there's not much he could do about last Saturday, but "we just go racing," he said. "This isn't going to help us win a sixth championship," he admitted, but "promise you, this team and myself, we won't quit." Moving on, "we will give 100 percent and see where it shakes out."

With two wins under his belt this season, Johnson seeks a third and it's safe to assume that he could very well win it again at Talladega. Last April, Johnson along with teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin started in the first two rows; Johnson started in second. Soon after the start, Earnhardt Jr. closed in behind him for a wild ride drafting for the entirety of the race.

This weekend, however, the restrictor plates have changed in size; they are a little bit bigger so you won't see them pushing for very long. Some may like that better.

Johnson spoke to the  media last weekend about Talladega. "I don't know what's going to change there," he said. "Whenever there's bigger plates, we have the opportunity to pass more. It increases the closing rates. There could be more passing. The fact that we have a lower pop off valve, would mean that we would probably meed to change more often and that can create some excitement and have cars split apart. But, until we into practice and really see what goes on, it's hard to predict it."

That holds true for the rest of the season. With five races to go for NASCAR, the 2011 season could end like it started with a surprise win. Then we shouldn't count out the five-time champ. 

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. - The Pied Piper looks to break his winless streak - By Rebecca Kivak
Top 5s: 9, Top 10s: 12, Wins: 5 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits 60 points behind leader Carl Edwards in the standings, nearly a race and a half behind. NASCAR’s most popular driver may be out of championship contention, but he can still shoot for wins and gain significant spots in the standings. I believe Earnhardt Jr.’s best chances to break his 124-race winless streak will come this weekend at Talladega, one of his best tracks, or at Martinsville the following week, where he’s come oh so close to claiming his first win at the short track.

Earnhardt Jr. is the pied piper of restrictor-plate racing. The driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew Paint the 88/National Guard car has five wins at Talladega, the second-most of the 12 Chase drivers. Talladega is tied with Richmond as Dale Jr.’s winningest track. From fall 2001 to spring 2003, he collected four consecutive victories at the volatile 2.66-mile track, the most ever by a driver there. His last victory there came in fall 2004.

Since the track was repaved in 2006, Earnhardt Jr.’s fortunes have been mixed at Dega. He was leading the fall 2006 race on the final lap, thisclose to another win, until a bumping miscue by Brian Vickers took him and future teammate Jimmie Johnson out of contention. In the nine races since then, he has four top-10 finishes. Earnhardt Jr. still leads all Chase drivers with a 92.7 driver rating at the track, with a second-best average finish of 14.6.

This spring Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson were the track’s dynamic duo. The two worked together perfectly as a two-car tandem, even pitting together, culminating in Earnhardt Jr. pushing Johnson to the win. Earnhardt Jr. finished fourth and looked like a contender for the win all day.

The new rule changes may allow for less two-car drafting, a phenomenon which Earnhardt Jr. has been vocal about disliking. Going back to the pack style of racing could work to Earnhardt Jr.’s benefit, as he is one of the best when it comes to bump drafting. But if the tandem racing remains the norm, then Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson need to replicate their strategy from the spring race - and not stay back too long like they did at the July Daytona race - to contend for the win.

As he tries to end his winless streak, Dale Jr. will be driving a special paint scheme designed by one of his fans. The winner of the “Paint the 88” contest, in its second year, is Amy Stanton of Mooresville, N.C. Will this be the paint scheme that sees Dale Jr. back in victory lane? Junior Nation certainly hopes so.

10. Ryan Newman - The odds are stacked against Newman - By Katy Lindamood
Top 5s: 4, Top 10s: 7, Wins: 0 

Since joining the Stewart-Haas team in 2009, Ryan Newman's finishes at Talladega can be summed up in one word: dismal, though his finishing position is not an indication of how well he ran throughout the day. Newman seems to find himself in the middle of every bad situation. It's something he and the No. 39 are hoping to rectify this weekend in the Good Sam Club 500. And even if Newman can finish the race in the top 5, it's going to take more than that to put him in championship contention. 

Career-wise Newman has 19 starts but has only led a total of 60 laps, never winning. The Indiana native has four top-5 and seven top-10 finishes in his career at Talladega. With an average finish of 20.8 and six DNFs, the odds are not in his favor. 

Speaking of the track and his recent troubles, Newman says, “If you're one of the fortunate teams that can avoid trouble while running up front in the closing laps, then you have a pretty good shot at winning. I really feel we're due to once again drive the Soldiers' car to victory lane."

11. Jeff Gordon - Can the Drive for Five stay alive? - By LJ Cloud
Top 5s: 14, Top 10s: 18, Wins: 6 

This season looked promising for Jeff Gordon with three wins, 11 top fives, 15 top 10s and an overall average finish of 12.8. However, the momentum Gordon showed going into the Chase slowed considerably with only one top-5 finish in five races, causing him to slip to 11th in drivers' points. What does that mean for this Sunday's Good Sam Club 500 At Talladega Superspeedway? It's anyone's guess. 

He sat on the pole and finished third in the spring race, and leads active drivers with wins at the series' longest track. With 14 top fives and 18 top 10s, Gordon knows how to get to the front, even if it means getting pelted with cans for beating the series' most popular driver (April '07). Plate racing is by nature a fickle thing and despite having won more races at Talledega any other active driver , Gordon has an average finish of only 16.1 in his 37 races there. It will take both skill and luck to finish well and keep his Chase chances alive. 

Gordon's take? During the weekly NASCAR teleconference he said, "You know, Talladega I think is in the perfect place in the Chase. It's one of those wild-card races, because of the drafting, you always hear about the big one. Just the drama and excitement that can unfold at Talladega I think makes things very interesting for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship ... I have a great person to work with in Mark Martin. We were very successful the last couple races I felt like. I'm looking forward to working with him and having a shot at winning the race and putting on a great show for the fans."

12. Denny Hamlin - This 'wild card' is definitely in the hole - By Lindi Bess
Top 5s: 3, Top 10s: 4, Wins: 0 

Denny Hamlin needs a miracle to become a viable contender for the 2011 Sprint Cup Championship. Something has gone wrong with the JGR No. 11 Toyota. Oddly enough we find teammate Kyle Busch's No. 18 up near the top in points and running consistently through the first five races and a definite championship contender.  Are these two not sharing notes, or is there something amiss in the Hamlin camp?

How will the Chase drivers fare at the great unknown of Talladega? Tune into the race on Sunday and check back for the full recaps on Monday. 
Skirts and Scuffs Takes on the Chase: Talladega – The Riskiest Race of the Season Skirts and Scuffs Takes on the Chase: Talladega – The Riskiest Race of the Season Reviewed by Admin on Friday, October 21, 2011 Rating: 5