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Talladega: the 'wild card' race in the Chase

6:25 PM, Oct 2, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - When it's Chase time in the Sprint Cup Series, the one racetrack that concerns the title contenders the most is Talladega Superspeedway.

Talladega is the "wild card" in the 10-race Chase for the championship. The unpredictable can happen there, including the big wreck or wrecks. One thing is for sure, the Chase drivers will be able to breathe a little easier once the Talladega race is in the rear-view mirror.

Sunday's race at Talladega is round four in this year's playoffs.

Some of the Chase members have done well at Talladega lately, while other have not.

"That race can shake things up in a big way," said Chase driver Clint Bowyer, who has won the last two fall races at Talladega. "It can propel you to the lead or bury you. It's one of those races that I kind of look forward to. I've won a couple times there and enjoy it, but I also know what can happen there too."

After winning this past weekend at Dover, Brad Keselowski reclaimed the points lead. Keselowski holds a five-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson. Denny Hamlin is 16 markers behind, while Bowyer trails by 25.

Talladega could be Bowyer's best opportunity to move up in the Chase rankings. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver has finished no worse than seventh in the last five races there.

Keselowski is also a two-time race winner at Talladega. He won the spring race there in May and scored his first career Sprint Cup victory at this 2.66-mile speedway in April 2009.

"I really respect the challenge that Talladega is mentally to every driver, but then certainly loathe the lack of ability to fully determine the outcome of your day," Keselowski said. "So it's a bit of a love/hate relationship for sure, but the mental challenge of it is what I really enjoy a lot."

Jeff Gordon is the last driver who scored a season-sweep at Talladega, doing so in 2007.

No Chase driver has won the fall race at Talladega and gone on to capture the series championship in the same season since NASCAR began its playoff format for its premier series in 2004.

Johnson and Hamlin have both struggled on the restrictor-plate tracks (Talladega and Daytona) this year. Johnson is 0-3 in finishing a plate race during the 2012 season. The five-time series champion was involved in an accident in all of those events, placing 42nd in the Daytona 500, 35th in the spring race at Talladega and 36th in July event at Daytona.

"Well, as you can probably see from our finishes this year, we haven't had a lot of luck at the restrictor-plate tracks," Johnson said. "It definitely is the one track in the Chase I've kind of been a little concerned about. There are a lot of great tracks for the 48 (Hendrick Motorsports team) coming up in the Chase, but this one is definitely one where anything can happen.

"There are so many things that are out of your control. There is a lot of room on this track to move around though, obviously, and try things. I think the odds are in our favor to be able to finish one of these restrictor-plate races this year. At least I hope so."

Johnson does have two wins at Talladega, with his most recent one coming in April 2011. He beat Bowyer to the finish line by the slimmest of margins -- 0.002 seconds to be exact.

Hamlin did post a fourth-place run in the Daytona 500 but finished 23rd and 25th in the other two restrictor-plate races this season.

"(Talladega) is an absolute crap shoot, but it's going to be for everyone," Hamlin said. "We have to know who we're racing. We have to make smart decisions and keep all the fenders on it. Typically, most superspeedways I'm right in it until the very end and get caught up in a wreck. My job is to make sure I concentrate on that weekend, not look forward and focus on getting the most points possible."

Hamlin's finishes in the last two fall races at Talladega have been eighth and ninth.

Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with six wins at Talladega, while his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. has five victories there. Earnhardt Jr.'s last win at Talladega came in Oct. 2004. Gordon has not taken the checkered flag there in five years.

Heading to Talladega, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne are both 32 points out of the lead. Earnhardt Jr. is next in the Chase rankings, 39 points behind, followed by Martin Truex Jr. (-42), Kevin Harvick (-46), Gordon (-48), Greg Biffle (-51) and Matt Kenseth (-72).

"For the first time in my career, I'm probably really looking forward to going to Talladega," said Kenseth, who won this year's Daytona 500. "Our plate stuff has been extremely strong this year. I think we've led a lot of laps at all three plate races. They all ended on a green-white-checker. We were leading all three green-white-checkers, but unfortunately, we lost the last two. I messed up both of them and didn't do the right things, but we've had really fast cars."

Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500.

Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, Oct. 7. Race: Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500. Site: Talladega Superspeedway. Track: 2.66-mile oval. Start time: 2 p.m.(ET). Laps: 188. Miles: 500. 2011 Winner: Clint Bowyer. Television: ESPN. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.

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