Half the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase races have been completed and Sunday’s event at the beastly 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway will decide which six drivers will advance to the Round of Eight and the four that will be eliminated.
Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick have already advanced by virtue of winning races in this round. For those on the cusp of not advancing, Talladega is definitely not the track they wanted to see decide their 2016 fate.
The problem with restrictor-plate racing is every car is equal and up to 35 of the 40 drivers have a legitimate shot to win. Just glance over the odds-to-win sheet this week and you’ll notice a huge change from what was listed last week for Kansas. You won’t see giant odds of 200-to-1 because almost anyone can win. Last week at Kansas only 15 drivers could legitimately say they could win.
Things happen fast at Talladega and drivers are sitting ducks. All it takes is for one driver to wiggle while 40 cars are stacked three-wide and it turns into a 15-car pile-up. At Kansas, there’s a strategy, but at Talladega it’s a crap shoot and the main goal for 178 of the 188 laps is to simply avoid trouble. It’s easier said than done, but for a couple of early season favorites who are outside looking in to the transfer spot this week, they have to figure a way to win.
Let’s take a look at the four drivers on the chopping block:
AUSTIN DILLON: He’s actually tied with Joey Logano for the eighth and final Chase spot heading into this weekend, but he loses a tie-breaker because Logano has had the highest finish among the two races in the Round of 12.
Dillon comes in having to feel pretty good about his chances since he had a career-best third-place finish at Talladega in May. If we include results from the other restrictor-plate track at Daytona, Dillon’s 11.9 average finish in 11 races since 2014 is second-best in the series.
DENNY HAMLIN: He’s currently 6-points behind the eighth-place transfer position, a situation similar to last season when he was involved in a late wreck and ended his chances of winning his first championship. The beneficiary was Kyle Busch who made the eighth slot and went on to win his first title.
What Hamlin has going for him is being one of the elite plate-racers in the series. His 11.7 average finish in 11 plate races since 2014 is tops and he’s captured two wins, including this years Daytona 500. He won at Talladega in 2014.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: He’s just 7-points out of the eighth-place transfer position and he’s going to his best track. Talladega seems to fit his style fine. He won his first career race there in 2009 driving for an underfunded part-time team and won in 2012 when he went on to win his first and only championship.
Keselowski then won this race in 2014 to transfer to the next round and won there in May. That’s four Talladega wins in 15 starts. A Ford driver has won the last two at Talladega and five of the past eight.
CHASE ELLIOTT: He’s almost in a win or nothing category sitting 12th in points, 25-points behind the eighth position. His daddy set the track record for speed at 212 mph in 1987 and he’s got a little bit of those genes in him based on his first Cup start at Talladega in May where he finished fifth.
While throwing darts at the dart board attached with car numbers, like I do to pick winners for most Talladega races, I came up a scenario that both Hamlin and Keselowski would advance meaning that two drivers currently sitting pretty will have some poor luck while being involved in somebody’s wreck.
My darts selected Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. as the unluckiest this week.