By virtue of the storied Alabama mega-track´s existence as the sole restrictor plate race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Talladega’s fall date has been circled twice on many fans and teams calendars this year-and for good reason. Talladega is, after all, a track where fortune and dismal fate consistently collide with regularity at over 200 miles per hour, taking hopes and dreams of glory and leaving twisted sheet metal and bent emotions. After last weekend’s shenanigans following the closing laps of Charlotte, the inherent drama Talladega provides will only be exponentially multiplied. Heaven or Hell.
Adding to the normal blood pressure spike, four drivers are going to be eliminated from Championship contention following the 500 miler this weekend and, absent a miracle, those four are Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. It almost seems heretical.
In a way, racing at Talladega has always been a race of nail biting decisions. Talladega’s wide racing surface makes handling and tire wear less an issue than at the high banks of Daytona and the use of horsepower-robbing restrictor plates virtually levels the field putting the race in the drivers’ hands. Or their minds.
Glorious victory or smoky demise depends on making the correct decisions at the correct time. Imagine a 200 mile an hour chess match against 42 other hungry opponents with the same goal: Victory Lane. Chase or not.
The first, and truly only, decision a driver can make before strapping into the race-car is strategy during the first half to 3/4 of the race. More specifically, the car must have some vital components intact to complete the event, so keeping the fenders intact and the toe (alignment) correct means avoiding the big one (unlike years past, the question now isn’t ‘when’ the big one occurs, but ‘how soon’). So the possibility of some teams ‘laying back’ towards the rear of the field is a distinct possibility, although a strategy that will be employed by very few, if at all.
In fact, the savvy and experienced drivers who can and need to win at Talladega know that most wrecks occur in the middle of the field, and will attempt to stay up front for the duration of the race.
Racing up front means clean air and fewer obstacles, so a vital decision is choosing who your dance partner is going to be. Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. have proven to work well together at this track, and both have the same amount to gain or lose, so they will no doubt find each other early and attempt to stay together towards the front. They will both be early and strong contenders for this event, and they are two of the most capable and experienced drivers at this monster track.
Another pair of drivers whose decisions could impact the Chase field on every lap of this event, are Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick, both of whom are locked into the Eliminator round of the Chase by way of victory in the Contender round. Much like the popular girls at a middle school dance, they are being and will be courted frequently by the rest of the Chase field.
Case in point: Logano may be Keselowski’s sole hope to consistently run up front, as Brad may find trouble keeping a partner with him to maneuver through the field after last week´s dust-up. The 22 doesn’t have to win, he just has to start to advance, so they will almost surely team up and stick together through the entirety of the event. Roger Penske, legendary team owner, might have “suggested” that already.
Harvick has the luxury of going with who he chooses and when he chooses. Harvick´s #4 has arguably been the best team week in and week out this season, and “Happy” has both the equipment and experience to find himself with more suitors than he can please. More like “Boogie Nights” than “Talladega Nights”. Whatever decisions these two drivers make have Chase implications on every level, on every lap.
However, just because the bottom four are carrying the most pressure heading into the Geico 500, that doesn’t mean that rest of the Chase field shouldn’t be concerned. Jeff Gordon has competed in, and won, many of these restrictor plate races. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch know what it takes to get it done, as well. Those drivers, along with Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman know that each lap, each decision they make – and when they make them — could keep them in the Chase for the next 3 races, or suddenly place them on the outside looking in.
Think about, for a moment, the Talladega races we had in NASCAR before the Chase, where even a casual fan could tune into the race and know within a half a lap of watching how early or late in the race was. What fan, and even TV announcer has watched a particularly daring move and not said ‘No,no,no, that was way too soon’!!
Those days are long past. With every position important, every lap, the type of racing that was saved for the final laps of the race will now be the standard. The trick is to be aggressive, but not aggressively stupid. A fine line, which many drivers will either ignore or completely forget.
Decide well, and be rewarded.
Decide poorly, and Talladega will allow someone else to make the decision for you.