Ever since the Chase for the Sprint Cup began in 2004, things have evolved to where the fall race at Talladega has become the so-called "wild-card" race of the 10-race Chase.
Anything and everything unpredictable can happen at 'Dega—and typically does.
But this year's Chase wild-card race at Talladega, which takes place next weekend, actually has its own wild-card race of sorts one week earlier in Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.
Call it the wild-card race's wild-card race.
Sure, Dover is only the third race on the Chase schedule, but for several drivers who have already fallen behind in the standings, it is nothing short of imperative that they make up some significant ground at Dover, lest they fall even further behind and are then faced with potential elimination—or close to it—after Talladega.
Could Dover truly be a make-or-break race for the championship hopes for Chase competitors currently ranked 7th to 12th?
"I hate to use the words make or break, but it sort of feels like that because if we come here and our cars don’t perform well, we’re probably in trouble for the rest of the year," said Matt Kenseth, who is currently 11th in the 12-driver Chase, 35 points behind points leader and five-time Chase champion Jimmie Johnson. Kenseth's comments came from Friday's pre-race media release.
Kenseth is seeking his second Cup championship—his first came in 2003, the season before the Chase format was implemented—as well as to leave Roush Fenway Racing on a high note. He'll drive for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013.
“You just take it one week at a time," Kenseth added. "The only thing you can control is your own car and what your own team does. I think you just work as hard as you can as a team and try to get the best finishes you can every week. You can’t really do anything about where everybody else finishes."
And then there's four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon, who comes into Dover last in the Chase standings, 45 points behind Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. If Gordon is to have any chance of rallying to get back into the thick of NASCAR's playoffs, he has to have nothing short of a superlative effort at Dover.
The last thing Gordon wants to do is have a mediocre or worse outing on the so-called Monster Mile this Sunday. If he does, and then gets caught up in someone else's wreck at Talladega—which is typically par for the course in most big crashes there—Gordon might as well kiss one of the best chances he's had to win his fifth career Cup title (and first since 2001) goodbye, even with six races still left in the Chase after 'Dega.
"The strategy and thought process doesn’t change," Gordon said in a team release. "We go out to win races and we can’t control what any of our competitors do. It’s important for us to be aggressive and put pressure on them by being up front and running good."
Gordon tried to put pressure on Johnson last week at New Hampshire, finishing third. Unfortunately for him, though, Gordon was able to pick up just one point in the standings because Johnson finished second behind race winner Denny Hamlin. Gordon's third-place finish, as a result, essentially got lost in the shuffle as the attention was directed at the top two finishers in that event.
"Right now we are not really on anybody’s radar," Gordon said. "They know we run good and know we can win races and yet, they know we are really far back in points. So right now it’s all on us to go do what we are capable of doing."
But wanting to do well at Dover—and actually doing so—are two entirely different animals.
First off, DIS is the only track on the Sprint Cup circuit that has an all-concrete racing surface.
Second, with its high banking (24 degrees in the turns, nine degrees on the straightaways) and lightning-fast speeds, Dover is practically a short track version of its bigger brother at Talladega. There's always plenty of action, lead changes and, of course, crashes. The only thing missing at Dover are restrictor plates.
But there is one key difference that Dover has over Talladega, which is also among the top concerns of drivers in the lower echelon of the Chase standings heading into Sunday: What goes up, must come down.
Blame it on physics, the track's layout or the greater propensity to slip and slide on the all-concrete racing surface, but when wrecks occur at Dover, the resulting carnage invariably drifts downward off the track and towards the infield. That means drivers who are merely minding their own business one second, suddenly find themselves with nowhere to go when wrecked cars and flying pieces start working their way down the banking and into the path of unsuspecting drivers.
That's unlike Talladega, where when one car wrecks, it typically stays put on the track in the same general area—after it stops spinning, that is.
Or, if there's one of Talladega's notorious "big one" wrecks, where sometimes 10 or more cars pile into each other and bounce off in any number of directions, the resulting smashed up cars don't necessarily drift down the banking and into the path of other oncoming cars the way they do at Dover.
So you can see why Sunday's wild-card race of sorts may actually have more significance than next week's race at Talladega for pretty much everyone from seventh-ranked Dale Earnhardt Jr. (26 points behind Johnson) on down, including Kevin Harvick (minus-31), Greg Biffle (minus-33), Martin Truex Jr. (minus-34), Kenseth (minus-35) and Gordon (minus-45).
"I feel like we're still in the hunt," Earnhardt said in a team release. "Obviously there are some teams that are showing strength over the last couple weeks, but we're not giving up. There's a lot of racing left, a lot of adversity these guys have got to go through. Hopefully we can maximize these eight remaining races, capitalize on some unfortunate things happening to some other teams (and) put ourselves back in the hunt.
"This thing can turn around in a week or two and we could be right back up in the middle of the battle up front. We just got to keep working hard to give ourselves that opportunity if that opportunity arises.
"I don't really know what else we can do. So we'll just try to be smart over the next eight and try not to get careless. I think that's the best thing we can do."