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Talladega sure lived up to the billing as being the one race in the Chase to shuffle the deck as 24 cars were involved in a last lap melee, that included several contending drivers.

Brad Keselowski was one of the beneficiaries of the “big one” as he increased his lead over Jimmie Johnson from five to 14 points. Denny Hamlin slid back from 16 coming in to now 23 behind.

Only six races remain and it’s starting to look like Keselowski has some traction. We all keep trying to find reasons why he won’t win a Championship or a number of other drivers will. The races are diminishing and he’s still there on top increasing his lead.

One driver who gained the most from the wreck was Jeff Gordon, who finished second behind Matt Kenseth. He moved up four positions to sixth in points and has now finished third or better on six of his past seven tracks raced on as he heads to Charlotte this week.

If Gordon would have had the same type of finish at Chicago, he’d be leading in points. He finished 35th in that race, but four runner-ups and two third-places in his last seven starts is pretty amazing stuff and why is he is our featured driver to watch this week.

One of the best reference tools when trying to identify who are the top drivers at Charlotte is looking at what happened on the season at the races on its sister tracks, Atlanta and Texas. All three are 1.5-mile high banked tracks that run similar. Each has its own unique trait, but the set-ups for races are pretty similar. If a driver was fast in any one of those races, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be fast in the next one.

The Texas race was run in April and may have the least amount of relevance here just because it was so long ago. The first Charlotte race run in late May is a must reference and perhaps the most telling information is what we saw last month in Atlanta, just because it’s the most recent.

Gordon finished second in Atlanta, the second race of his incredible run that not only helped him make the Chase but now become a real contender to win it all. He’s won five times at Charlotte over his career, the last coming in 2007. Gordon finished seventh in the May race at Charlotte and for good measure, was fourth at Texas. Because of how well his team is clicking right now, he should be considered one of the drivers to beat Sunday.

The other top tier driver to beat this week will be Denny Hamlin, who won the Atlanta race last month. Hamlin still looks like the driver to beat in the Chase just because he’s been the strongest this season on the type of tracks he’ll see in the final six races.

In the May Charlotte race, he was runner-up. Then he goes to Kansas, a place he won at in April. Then he’s got Martinsville, a place he’s won at five times. He finished 12th at Texas, but he’s won there twice in his career. He won at Phoenix this season and then he’ll close it out at Homestead, a track he’s won at before.

Everything points to Hamlin being the front-runner to winning the Championship and at 7-to-2 odds, he’s a great play right now.

Kasey Kahne also was a beneficiary of the wreck at Talladega and moved up two positions to fourth, only 36 points from the lead. Kahne won at Charlotte in May and has been one of the most consistent drivers in the series since finishing runner-up at Kentucky in late June. The bad luck that plagued his team at the beginning of the season is a thing of the past.

Jimmie Johnson used to dominate Charlotte. He’s won there six times over his career, but only once (2009) in his past 13 starts. Almost simultaneously, when Charlotte Motor Speedway dropped the Lowe’s sponsorship, Johnson – sponsored by Lowe’s – seemed to be just a regular driver on the track and not the super freak that at one point won five of six races there.

He’s had finishes of 28th or worse in three of his past five starts. His best finish this season on the high-banked 1.5-mile sister tracks was runner-up at Texas and was outside of the top-10 at Charlotte and Atlanta.

If we include all seven of the races run on 1.5-mile tracks this season, including the flatter tracks at Las Vegas, Kentucky, Kansas and Chicago, only one driver has finished in the top-10 in all seven, Dale Earnhardt Jr. These tracks have been his bread and butter this season.

Martin Truex Jr. has to get consideration for this race simply because he dominated the Atlanta race, but his lead was taken away because of a late caution. On the restart of the green-white-checker finish, he was toast. But the power was there to put him in that position and it’s likely to be there again this week.

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

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