Let’s clear something up here.
NASCAR is racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend, isn’t that right? I believe the event is the Bank of America 500 on Saturday night.
I’m a bit confused here. If NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series is racing at Charlotte this weekend, then how come everyone—including the media—is talking about Talladega?
Talladega is next week.
OK, I get it. Talladega is a pretty crazy place. And anything can happen there. And not necessarily on the race track, if you know what I mean. (If you’ve ever spent time in the infield on a Saturday night before a race, then you know exactly what I’m talking about here.)
Everything about Talladega is unpredictable. That’s why it’s been top of mind for all but one of the Chase drivers. That lone exception is last week’s race winner Joey Logano. His win at Kansas automatically moves him forward into the next round, the Eliminator Round of eight drivers.
“You just can’t predict what’s going to happen,” said Jimmie Johnson during his media availability on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “That’s the wild thing about Talladega.”
Johnson has no choice but to look to Talladega. While Charlotte may be a good track for him (seven wins, 13 top-fives, 17 top-10s and four poles), there’s no doubt that 500 miles there is far more difficult than at Talladega, where a well thought-out race strategy can prove to be the only thing that’s needed for success.
“It’s just such a risk versus reward management exercise…if you don’t have much to lose,” Johnson said. “You can try to race all day long and try to stay at the head of the pack and out of trouble.”
Talladega Superspeedway is where huge packs of cars race each other inches apart at speeds just under 200 miles per hour. A mistake here is unacceptable. An errant twitch or bobble can spell disaster, the kind of trouble that not only takes you out of the race, but more than likely a dozen or so of your fellow racers.
Trouble hangs in the air from the moment the green flag flies, and it sometimes lingers on past the checkered flag.
“You never know if there is going to be a big crash, if it’s going to be your fault or if you’re going to get caught up in someone else’s mess,” said Ryan Newman during his media availability on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “There’s no answer to it. It is what it is. It’s part of the Chase.”
Newman is winless this season, yet he sits comfortably at fourth in points, the beneficiary of the new Chase rules that reward consistency. A bad race at Talladega and the points could reshuffle again, and the Richard Childress Racing driver could find himself on the bottom part of the field of 12 drivers left in the Chase. You know he’s thinking ahead.
The funny thing is, drivers don’t often look ahead. They’re usually focused on the task, or more precisely, the track at hand. But this year’s Chase drivers, and I’m talking about the dozen that are left, have got to have Talladega on their minds even though they’re racing at Charlotte this weekend.
It’s the bogey man waiting around the corner. It’s the biggest wild card of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, where one mistake and you’re left with a handful of nothing. It’s the race where you’re making moves at nearly 200 miles per hour; your brain having to process what’s going on around you while your spotter is talking you through the mayhem that’s about to break loose at any second. You find yourself thinking about every move you make and the two afterward.
For Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Talladega offers a last chance to move forward, unless of course, they happen to win at Charlotte. All three drivers currently find themselves on the wrong end of the Chase standings. It’s a precarious position forcing each man to run a precise and error-free race.
It’s hard to focus on Charlotte when you’ve got such a huge question mark looming in your future. Saturday night will be tough. Charlotte Motor Speedway is fast, unforgiving and presents an environment where it’s difficult to pass.
Talladega will be like riding a tiger.
Earnhardt Jr. sees things differently. He doesn’t want to wait for Talladega, in spite of his success (five wins) there.
“You can’t really go into Talladega with the same confidence because it’s such a lottery there on how in the hell you are going to finish,” said Earnhardt Jr. during his media availability on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I want to make it happen now. I feel like I’ve got a better chance today, this week than I do in Talladega even with the success we’ve had there.”
Unfortunately, there’s nothing more unpredictable than the winner at Talladega. It’s often not the best car that wins. In fact, you don’t have to have the best or the fastest car to win a restrictor plate race. The winner is most often the driver who is clever enough to make that final chess move of the race at the right time and the right place.
“You don’t mind crashing if there’s five to go; you only do if you’re trying to get into the championship,” Johnson added, when asked about whether or not he’ll take a chance at the end of the race at Talladega.
Finally, there’s the unspoken part in all of this. Will any of the aforementioned drivers, or any of the other Chase drivers for that matter, be guilty of looking past Charlotte? It’s hard to keep your focus when you know what’s coming around the corner.
We may never know.
In the meantime, there’s still a race to be run first. The Bank of America 500.
That translates into 334 laps around the 1.5-mile track and a long night.
Grab some coffee.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis