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Dodge sure picked a fine time to jump out of NASCAR. Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski has won two of the three Chase races thus far, leads the points and has done it all with a Dodge engine that appears to get much better fuel mileage than Chevy, Ford or Toyota.

We’ve seen John Elway walk away from the game with a Super Bowl win and Ted Williams hit a home run in his final at-bat, but watching a manufacturer walk away with a Championship, in this era, would be something.

Dodge left NASCAR in 1977 and made a return in 2001 under Ray Evernham’s guidance. They’ve had some success since coming back with a few wins, but nothing as steady as what Keselowski is doing right now with five wins on the season and seven races to go.

Of course it’s only three races and there’s a lot of things that can and will happen, such as Jimmie Johnson staying hot after finishing fourth or better in the Chase races and Denny Hamlin having the edge on at least six of the seven tracks coming up.

The one track that no one is supposed to have an edge on is Talladega, site of this week’s race. This is supposed to be the one out of the 10 Chase races that is a wild card where the deck can be shuffled dramatically. A driver and team can do everything correct during the week, run a perfect race and then out of nowhere get caught in the middle of a 10-car pileup.

In Keselowski’s case, he may be one of the few drivers who expects to win. He took the checkers in the spring race and also captured his first Cup victory on the track in 2009.

This season in the three plate races, we’ve seen a Dodge, Chevy and Ford win. Chevy has been the star at Talladega over the last two decades, but the Roush Fords have been very strong over the past three seasons in plate races, particularly at Daytona. 

None of the current crop of Roush drivers have ever won at Talladega, but Jamie McMurray did while driving for them in 2009. In the spring race, Matt Kenseth finished third and Greg Biffle fifth, giving indication that their time is coming soon.

The interesting part about the Chase race at Talladega is the approach that drivers near the top of the standings take. They are overly cautious and drive with a constant fear of staying out of trouble.

Johnson has two Talladega wins over his career, but both came in the spring. Johnson has routinely dropped to the back of the field and waited for the final 10 laps to move up. It’s probably a smart strategy since he’s won five championships using the tactic. But between all the aero changes in plate races that occurred coming into this season, it was much harder for drivers sitting back to catch up.

The laid back approach could be costly because there doesn’t appear to be any way Keselowski is going to play that game. Although early in the Chase, this could be a race where he gains even more momentum and puts even more pressure on Johnson to make a move.

Denny Hamlin has an 18.2 average finish at Talladega and his only plate win came in the Bud Shootout at Daytona – a non-points race – during his rookie season. Like Johnson, Hamlin may play it cautiously knowing he has six tracks remaining where he’ll hold a big advantage over the others.

Finishing 20th or worse would be devastating for any of the contenders.

Clint Bowyer is currently fourth in points, 25 behind Keselwoski, and no one seems to be talking about him. He won in 2010 and in 2011 at Talladega while driving a Richard Childress Chevy, but in his first run there in his Michael Waltrip Toyota, he finished sixth. This could be a race where Bowyer leaps into major contention for the Championship while everyone else gingerly drives. 

Dale Earnhardt Jr is a five-time Talladega winner, but hasn’t won there since 2004. He’s currently 39 points out of first and has a lot ground to make up. Some old school magic could get the NASCAR nation buzzing again.

Micah Roberts is a former race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Contact Micah at [email protected].

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