Talladega and Martinsville have always been the races on the Chase schedule that have been considered the wild card events where the outcomes are unpredictable. That hasn’t changed with this year’s Chase, but with Talladega being the third and final race of the Contender Round, it has become “the” wild card race of the 10-race Chase.
The scenario surrounding this weekend’s GEICO 500 in Talladega is worthy of being the last race of the season as only two of the 12 drivers still in contention to move into the Eliminator Round have clinched their spots. The remaining 10 all still have the opportunity to move on, but since it is Talladega, they will have to race the track as much as the rest of the field.
Talladega and Daytona are the only tracks on the entire Sprint Cup schedule that requires the use of restrictor plates. The use of the plates produces parity in the field that you don’t have at any other track, and it is something that the 12 Chase drivers don’t need with so much on the line
Half of the 10 remaining Chase drivers that are not guaranteed to transfer to the next round are in control of the destiny, regardless of where the rest of the field finishes. Kyle Busch has the best scenario for moving forward as he only has to finish 24th or better to transfer to the Eliminator Round.
Ryan Newman, who has yet to win a race this season, finds himself in a very manageable position this Sunday as he only needs a 19th or better finish to move on. His ability to not only get in the Chase but continuing to move through the rounds is proof that even though this season has been all about winning, consistency can still position a driver with the chance to race for the title.
Carl Edwards is just behind Newman as he needs an 18th place finish or better. Jeff Gordon needs at least a 16th place finish, and one spot behind is Denny Hamlin who has to finish one spot better in 15th to secure his transfer spot.
Each of these drivers can increase the number they need to clinch a spot by one if they lead a lap on Sunday and can increase that number by two if they lead the most laps. Any ties will be broken by a driver’s number of seconds, thirds, and continuing until the tie is broken.
While those five drivers are somewhat in control of their destiny, the remaining five’s only control is by making it to victory lane on Sunday. Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have to win to guarantee that they continue their quest for the championship.
Winning for any one of these five will be made even more diffi cult by the parity of the field and the chances that are always great at Talladega of having a couple of the so called “big ones” that can take out a large chunk of the field on any lap. Because of this, these five drivers and their crew chiefs will be forced to take chances that they never would have to take before.
There are so many variables that will come into play and one of them will begin on qualifying day. Starting on the pole and up near the front will not be as important as getting the opportunity to be one of the teams that will get to pick a choice pit stall location thanks to their qualifying efforts. A favorable pit stall location gives the teams the opportunity to pick up track position with every stop on pit road.
Track position doesn’t mean as much at Talladega until the closing laps as drivers will work their way up through the field only to be shuffled back within a few laps. It’s in the closing laps that track position becomes so important as you need to position yourself near the front in order to take advantage of another driver’s mistake or misfortune.
Talladega may not come at the best time for the Chase drivers, but if you are a fan it comes at a great time as it is taking on more of a championship race than just another Chase race!
Event: GEICO 500
Track: Talladega Superspeedway (2.66 mile tri-oval, 330 of banking in the turns)
Date: Oct. 19, 2 p.m.
Defending Champion: Jamie McMurray