Friday, October 18, 2013

Chasing the Championship: Previewing the Camping World RV Sales 500 at Talladega Superspeedway

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Talladega is brutal. She’s unpredictable and temperamental. She’ll lull a driver into a comfort zone then reach out to bite without any warning. Dega is the wildcard in The Chase and this weekend it’s her turn to play host.

Whether you like pack racing or tandem drafting, you can bet Talladega will put on a show as it welcomes the Sprint Cup Series for race six in the Chase.

Here’s how our 13 drivers stack up.

1. Matt Kenseth – 2225 Points
by: Jessica Tow


Ah, Talladega...one of those tracks where just about anything can and will happen. It's a wild card event from start to finish, where anyone can take home the win. Defending race winner and current points leader Matt Kenseth will be looking for a strong finish at the 2.66-mile restrictor plate track this weekend.

With Talladega being the variable that it is, Kenseth has a little luck as the stats are on his side. He finished eighth in the May race, has a series best driver rating of 113.7, and an average finish of 4.0 at the track. The strategy for Kenseth this weekend: aggression.

Kenseth said: "I think most people, if they have a legitimate shot in the point standings, go there tentative and make plans to try to hang in the back in order to try to minimize the possible damage."

He added: "I think that’s good because I really try to approach Talladega the opposite — I try to approach it as an opportunity. If the guys we’re racing and are trying to beat are being really careful and want to ride in the back, then I look at that as an opportunity to try to hopefully lead some laps and get some bonus points to be in the mix. If you do come out unscathed you may even have a shot to win.”

Going into this weekend, the chase for the championship remains closer than ever. Kenseth is ahead of driver Jimmie Johnson by a mere four points. In order to maintain the points lead, Kenseth must win the race or finish ahead of Johnson. Kurt Busch may have the special paint scheme, but it's Kenseth who has two teammates in Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin to pull a Shake-N-Bake type of manuever. The battle is going to be intense. Keep your eyes on the No. 20 and No. 48 this Sunday.

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2. Jimmie Johnson (-4)
by: Lisa Janine Cloud


Four points.

Only four points separate first and second place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson lurks just behind the last Winston Cup champion, the equivalent of four cars passed on the racetrack. So close - yet so far.

Especially since Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 500 will be at a track where Johnson's pattern is boom or bust. Talladega Superspeedway witnessed eight of his 35 career DNFs, but only two of Johnson's 65 career victories came at the iconic Alabama track. Still, in 23 starts he's scored 10 top 10s, six of which were top fives.

What do all those numbers mean? Not much, when it comes to plate racing at 'Dega. Johnson has shown skill at plate racing, more at Daytona than Talladega, but if you're looking for a favorite based on past performance, you'll want to stop on over at the No. 24 garage.

Can Johnson close the gap between himself and Kenseth? Can he wake up Monday morning with the words "New leader: 48" ringing in his ears?

Sure he can. He's Jimmie Johnson. That's like asking if Tom Brady can throw a game-winning touchdown as the clock runs out in the fourth quarter.

But history and experience say he could just as easily crash and finish 30th or worse. The good news is that so could any of the other top five in points, including Kenseth.

3. Kevin Harvick (-29)
by Beth Reinke


Kevin Harvick knows the highs and lows of Talladega as well as anyone. He’s been to Victory Lane once (April 2010) but finished 40th in the spring race after a multi-car accident early in the event. He has two DNFs in the past three races at the track, yet last year he managed to avoid “the big one” in the fall race and brought home an 11th - place finish. So like many of his competitors, his luck has been hit or miss. 

In addition to a win, the driver of the No. 29 Jimmy John’s Chevy has 10 top 10s and one pole at the Alabama track. On the other hand, he has more top fives in this season alone (eight) than in his entire Sprint Cup career at Talladega – six top-five finishes in 25 starts.

With only a 29-point span between championship leader Matt Kenseth and Harvick, who sits third, this could be a pivotal race for the No. 29 team. The 2.66-mile superspeedway can make or break the Chase, and with an average finish of 16.4, history shows things could go either way for Harvick.

What does Harvick see as the best approach for this weekend? "Don't wreck. That's the perfect strategy,” he said. “How you do that I don't know, but I'm hoping we have the luck we need to make sure that we don't have any major issues this weekend at Talladega."

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4. Jeff Gordon (-36)
by: Stacey Owens


The 13th addition to the 2013 Chase is looking for his first win of the season, so he just may be headed to the perfect track. Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team have amassed more wins at Talladega Superspeedway than any other Chase driver.

With six wins to his credit at the 2.66-mile track, Gordon knows what it takes to get to Victory Lane,

"You've got to go in there with a positive attitude and fight and do your best and try to avoid whatever may occur there or what's going to occur there and hope that you come out with a race car. It doesn't even have to be in one piece, it just needs to get across the line with a decent finish."

He carries an average finish of 16.3 into Sunday's race and has an 11th best driver rating of 81.8 at the storied track. Talladega, as many drivers can attest, can make or break a driver's Chase hopes. Gordon knows that all too well. He lost the points lead in 2004 when he finished 19th.

In Gordon's quest for a fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, he'll have to have a little luck on his side for the Camping World RV Sales 500, which is considered a "wild card" race simply because of its venue.

Gordon, with as many wins as he's experienced at Talladega, has nine DNFs at the track, but he's also proven that he can finish well despite his starting position. In the spring race in 2000, Gordon won after having started in the 36th position, and in 2007, he won from the pole.

5. Kyle Busch (-37)
by: Lacy Keyser


This spooky weekend we're headed to Talladega - the wild card race, where anything can and will happen. When it comes to Talladega you never know who will be a victim and who will come out on top.

Kyle Busch has one win, three top fives and four top 10s at the track.  Busch is driving a special Halloween-themed M&M’s car. This weekend it doesn’t matter where you start, so qualifying is one less thing Busch needs to worry about, but if he starts in the back, driving to the front should not be a problem.

With Talladega, you can’t count out anyone that isn’t in 10th through 13th place in the standings. Busch has conquered this wild track before, so who’s to say the No.18 won’t do it again? He’s had a strong start to the Chase.

“It doesn’t matter at all," said Busch on Talladega. "It’s such a crapshoot 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.”

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6. Greg Biffle (-58)
by: Rebecca Kivak


You may not think it, but Talladega has been a pretty good track for Greg Biffle recently.

The driver of the No. 16 3M Scotch Blue Ford Fusion has two top fives, five top 10s and an average finish of 19.9 in 21 starts at the 2.66-mile superspeedway. Initially, Biffle’s stats don’t sound particularly impressive. But upon closer look, Biffle has finished in the top 10 three times out of the last five races, including a sixth-place finish in last year’s event after leading 16 laps.

Biffle will be hoping to avoid a repeat of the spring race, where he was caught up in a 16-car wreck only 43 laps into the race, relegating him to a 36th-place finish.

Sitting sixth in the championship standings at the Chase’s halfway point, Biffle will try for any point he can get to keep his title hopes alive. With the fall Talladega race occurring later in the Chase this year, there’s less time to recover after a bad finish, which Biffle can’t afford if he wants to make a run at the championship.

After finishing sixth in the Daytona 500 and 17th at that track’s July race, the Roush Fenway driver enters Talladega feeling optimistic about his team’s restrictor-plate program.

“We had a fast car at Talladega earlier in the year and at Daytona in July,” Biffle said. “Track position is very important at superspeedway races and keeping the car up front will be crucial to staying out of the wrecks. I feel good about where we are at with our superspeedway program.”

7. Kurt Busch (-59)
by: Stacey Owens


After a 14th-place finish in the Bank of America 500 last weekend, Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet, finds himself mired in seventh position in the championship standings. From his 10th-place starting position, the elder Busch had hoped for a better finish and some movement toward points leader, Matt Kenseth.

Heading into Talladega Superspeedway this weekend, Kurt still has high hopes for a great finish. He'll pilot the Furniture Row/Wonder Bread Chevrolet (an obvious shout-out to "Talladega Nights") looking for his first win at the 2.66-mile track. Kurt boasts six top-fives and 13 top-10s at the famed Alabama track. His driver rating at Talladega is fifth-best among all drivers at 86.8. His average finish in 25 races is 16.7, and he holds a third-best average running position of 15.1.

Though a one-car team, Kurt and the No. 78 team already have 10 top-fives, 15 top-10s and one pole this season. Kurt is looking to avoid "The Big One" this weekend in the Camping World RV Sales 500 this Sunday. After a disappointing 30th-place finish in the Aaron's 500 on May 5, 2013 at Talladega, which ended with Kurt experiencing his first-ever rollover accident and landing atop Ryan Newman's No. 39 machine, Kurt is looking for Lady Luck to be on his side when this "Wild Card" race ends.

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8. Clint Bowyer (-63)
by: Carol D’Agostino


Clint Bowyer gained one spot in the standings last week with his 11th-place place finish at Charlotte. This week he learned he would be one of only two drivers in the Michael Waltrip Racing team in 2014. Can this good news help bring a little luck to the No. 15, who has been limping through the 2013 Chase?

If we don’t see a decent performance out of the No. 15 team this week we probably won’t see one for the rest of the season. Talladega Superspeedway has always been a good track for Clint Bowyer. Bowyer has the best average finish of all drivers in the series over the last five years.

Bowyer's Talladega statistics: four top 5s; seven top 10s; two wins

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-66) by: Stacey Owens

With no wins this season, the Camping World RV Sales 500 at Talladega Superspeedway may be the best chance at redemption for Dale Earnhardt Jr. His last victory there was in October 2004 when he led 78 laps of the 188-lap race. He and the No. 88 team boast an average finish of 15.1 at the 2.66-mile track, the best among Chase drivers. Earnhardt also holds the second-best average running position at Talladega, which coincidentally is also 15.1.

Earnhardt also has more consecutive wins at Talladega than his fellow Chase drivers. He won four in a row from fall 2001 to 2003. That may help explain his thoughts about returning to the track where he’s enjoyed so much success.

“I’ve really had a lot of success at Talladega, a lot of great runs,” Earnhardt shared. “I feel confident when we go there that we are going to have a good car, going to know how to use it.”

In his 27 starts at Talladega, Earnhardt has led laps in 24 of them. Only points leader Matt Kenseth has a better driver rating with a 91.5 to Earnhardt’s 89.9.

Should he win on Sunday, Earnhardt would tie teammate Jeff Gordon with six wins at the largest track in the series. He’ll also be racing for his 200th top-10 finish in Sprint Cup competition. When asked about his weekend chances, Earnhardt remarked, “Hendrick Motorsports has done a great job with this car at Daytona and Talladega. Our confidence level is real good, real high. Hopefully, we get an opportunity to have a good race on Sunday and go to Victory Lane. We really feel like we have a good shot at it and feel like it is about that time for us to win one at Talladega.”

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10. Carl Edwards (-67)
by: Rebecca Kivak


Carl Edwards enters Talladega , the wildcard in the Chase, looking to capture the win that eluded him in the spring.

The Roush Fenway driver started the May race on the pole and took over the lead just before rain stopped the event for three and a half hours. Edwards was also leading on the final lap. But Front Row Motorsports teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland surged ahead, and Edwards had to settle for a third-place finish.

For as well as he performed in the spring, Edwards has had a volatile relationship with Talladega. Everyone remembers his spectacular crash on the final lap of the spring 2009 race when he went airborne. In 18 starts, the driver of the No. 99 Subway Ford has two top fives, five top 10s and an average finish of 20.8. He finished 36th here one year ago.

Edwards believes Talladega will separate the Sprint Cup title contenders from the pretenders, and he hopes he’ll leave the 2.66-mile superspeedway as one of the contenders. He sits in 10th place in the championship standings, more than a race behind points leader Matt Kenseth.

“We ran really well at Talladega in the spring,” Edwards said. “We were leading when it started raining and we were leading at the white flag, and we feel like we’ve made huge gains with our restrictor plate program. This is a race that we can go win and climb up some positions in the standings. It’s also a wildcard race in the Chase where anything can happen and I really believe after this race you’re going to see who the championship contenders are. Hopefully we can get up there and get close enough to still have a shot at this.”

11. Joey Logano (-75)
by: Katy Lindamood

For most drivers Talladega isn’t about making up ground or staying ahead of the closest pursuer, it’s about surviving and living to fight another day. But, if you are near the back of the standings like Joey Logano, Talladega is your opportunity to make a run for it. To somehow avoid the big one and be at the front when the checkered flag flies.

Though not statistically eliminated from the hunt, Logano is going to need more than just a good run, he’s going to need a miracle and some bad luck for the other competitors to stand a snowballs chance at moving up through the standings. Unfortunately, for the Penske Racing  driver, Talladega is truly a wildcard.

In his nine starts Logano has had five finishes outside the top 20 while the other four have been inside the top 10. Two of those top 10s have been within the top five, but his average finish of 20th ranks third lowest among Chase drivers.

Logano is hoping for a better finish than he had in May where he was forced to the garage with engine issues after completing 143 of the 192 laps. "Our restrictor-plate results haven't really shown how well we have been there this year. From the beginning of the year, I think we have been strong,” said Logano.  “We ran really well in the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona and backed that up at Daytona until we got shuffled out of the draft with just a couple of laps to go. We were good at the first Talladega race before we lost an engine and were looking good at Daytona before our tire issue. We've been strong. A top 10 car there for sure. We just need to finish the race this weekend. We are good enough to win for sure."

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12. Ryan Newman (-78)
by: Katy Lindamood


There’s no love lost between Ryan Newman and Talladega Superspeedway. It seems that Newman’s day at Talladega is more likely to end in the Infield Care Center than in Victory Lane. Talladega has seen his car upside down, sideways and every which way in between. This might be the wild card race for the Chasers, but for Newman it’s about conquering the track that’s been his nemesis.

In 23 starts Newman has only four top-five finishes and has led only 67 of the 3651 laps he’s completed at Talladega. Shockingly, Newman has never been on the pole at the restrictor plate track and his average finish of 22.2 is the lowest of the 13 Chase drivers. There’s nothing about this superspeedway that says success for Newman.

“We’ve been on the short end of the stick at Talladega for the past few years. To be successful at Talladega, you’ve got to keep yourself in the hunt so you can be there at the end,” says Newman. “If you have a good car, you can stay toward the front all day. If you don’t, you have to put yourself in a position that will allow you to be in the best possible position at the end. It’s as simple, or as complex, as that.”

The No. 39 team may not be out of the running for the Championship, based on the numbers, but it’s a long, long shot for Newman given his 78-point deficit to the leader.

13. Kasey Kahne (-81)
by: Katy Lindamood

Not even a second-place finish at Charlotte could cure what ails Kasey Kahne. His position at the back of the Chase field isn't what the team had in mind, but a series of issues put the the No. 5 behind before they had a chance to show their true potential in the “post season.”

In 19 starts Kahne has three top fives, four top 10s and an average finish of 21.5 at Talladega. Three starts have resulted in DNFs including the May event where he completed just 42 laps.

Hopefully Kahne exorcised all his demons last weekend at Charlotte. Perhaps it is his turn to have luck go in his favor.

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