Talladega: The Chase for the Sprint Cup Really Starts Here
The other day, I heard somebody on ESPN say that the leader of the points after the Dover race has never gone on to win the Chase. I thought, "That's odd...I wonder why." Then I saw that the next race was at Talladega and said, "Oh, that explains it."
It turns out, though, that Talladega just started following Dover this season. In past seasons, it came a couple of weeks after Dover. So there have been many drivers to go into Talladega, stay out of trouble and win.
Talladega has the reputation of being the "wild card" in the Chase because of the restrictor plates. Plates mean racing in very tight packs all day long.
Avoiding "The Big One" is almost a matter of pure luck. Getting caught up in one of those multi-car wrecks can ruin a driver's chance for a title.
But contrary to the myth, it is possible to go there with the lead and leave with the lead too. The last three drivers to go there with the lead also left with the lead.
2011: Carl Edwards
2010: Jimmie Johnson
In 2010, Johnson came into the fall Talladega race with the Chase lead in his drive for a fifth straight title. He finished seventh in the race and left with a 14-point lead.
A week later, he relinquished the lead to Denny Hamlin with two races left after a poor finish at Texas Motor Speedway. However, he came back to win the title in the season finale at Homestead.
2009: Jimmie Johnson
Johnson led by 118 points going into Talladega in 2009 and left with a 181-point lead. He then coasted to his fourth straight Sprint Cup championship. He finished sixth in the race.
2008: Jimmie Johnson (Who Else?)
Jimmie left Talladega up 72 points with six races to go. He had a ninth-place finish in that race and went on to win his third Sprint Cup title in a row.
2007: Jeff Gordon
Gordon went into the Talladega race one point behind teammate Jimmie Johnson in the Chase standings. He won the pole, then won the race—his second Talladega win of the season.
Johnson finished in second place and left nine points behind with six races to go. But he won the title for the second straight year, while Gordon finished second, 77 points behind.
2006: Jeff Burton
Burton came into the 2006 fall Talladega race in the lead, but finished three laps down in 27th. He spiraled downward from there and wound up in seventh place as Jimmie Johnson won his first championship.
2005: Jimmie Johnson
In 2005, Jimmie Johnson came into the race at Talladega with the lead, but left in an 82-point hole from which he never recovered. Tony Stewart left Talladega with the lead after finishing second. Johnson finished 31st.
Stewart then went on to win the championship. He won the championship the years before and after Johnson's five straight titles.
So, contrary to the popular opinion, Talladega is not a graveyard for points leaders. Nor is it necessarily the case that leaving with the lead means a driver is home free.
What is true, though, is that a driver can get caught up in The Big One at any time, and it could do some real damage to his chances. And it's true that there is really nothing a driver can do about it. Avoiding a huge wreck and getting a good finish at Talladega is more luck than skill.
As Tony Stewart once said about Talladega, "It's a big chess match. Unfortunately, I only know how to play checkers."
2012: Pole Winner Kasey Kahne
Kasey Kahne starts on the pole for this year's race. There is probably no other track where a pole is as meaningless as Talladega.
In the course of a race, a car can be up front, drop back to he rear and a few laps later, be back up front. But a pole is always nice. It also gets you into the Bud Shootout in February.
Most Desparate Driver: Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth is the driver most in need of a good Talladega finish. He is last in the Chase so far.
He has a Daytona win to his credit this year, so he does have a car capable of getting him back into contention. It's now or never for Kenseth, who is in his last season in that car.