The NASCAR Chase For The Cup goes to the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, with two drivers in position to pull away from the rest of the field, but Sunday’s 1 PM ET race offering perhaps the last, best chance for the standings to tighten.
Brad Keselowski has won two of the three Chase races, and Jimmie Johnson has run strongly all three times, and the former leads the latter by just five points in the standings. But to drop down to third place and Denny Hamlin puts you 16 points back, and from there Clint Bowyer is 25 points out and then you move into drivers that are 30+ points behind.
All the drivers outside the top two are at least two weeks, and in some cases more, of sustained performances in finishing ahead of the leaders before they could move ahead in the overall standings. Fortunately for them, and for the cause of excitement, the track at Talladega offers just such a chance.
“Talladega is a restrictor plate race,” said TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, regarding Sunday’s Roadside Assistance 500. “That means there’s a limit on fuel that can go into the engine. Drivers don’t have the horsepower to pull away and that means pack racing.”
The consequence of pack racing—where drivers are right on top of each other—are possible dramatic wipeouts. “If a car slips once he can take out half the field,” Bill said. And if Keselowski and Johnson were the drivers taken out, that leaves the door open for the kind of dramatic points shift the other drivers desperately need.
Bowyer has had recent success at this track, winning races in 2010 and 2011, and Jeff Gordon swept a pair back in 2007. Although at 48 points off the pace, Gordon needs more than just one dramatic change to put himself in serious striking distance of the top. And in noting Bowyer’s success, we shouldn’ t overlook the fact it was Keselowski who won at this venue earlier this year and also grabbed a win in 2009.
The Chase For The Cup is shaping up as a Keselowski-JJ battle in the seven remaining races. Sunday in Talladega represents what’s likely the last shot at changing that dynamic.