Talladega Superspeedway looms ahead like a coiled rattlesnake, blocking advancement in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup. The winners of the first two races in the round of 12, Jimmie Johnson at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kevin Harvick on Sunday at Kansas Speedway, were, if not predictable, then at least fitting.
|All-Time Leaders in NASCAR Chase Victories|
|Jimmie Johnson||Kevin Harvick||Tony Stewart||Carl Edwards|
Harvick, who turns 41 in December, and Johnson, who reached that age last month, are the masters of the Chase. Harvick has never failed to advance through a round since the present format was implemented in 2014—the year of his lone championship. Johnson has won a record six Chases (the record for overall championships is seven with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. sharing the top spot), but he has none in the elimination format.
The two seem to make an unpredictable system...predictable. Harvick said:
Yeah, I think experience in our sport is much different than other sports because my eyes don't work as good as they used to and my reflexes might not be as good, but they're still not bad. I think being able to communicate with your race team and sit in there and talk through some things, try to give them a ballpark of what you think, then let them go from there, you know, definitely has more weight than probably a lot of other sports... But there's really still nothing that you can replace experience with, especially winning experience, inside the car.
Each of the 16 drivers who made the Chase—before it even began, while paying lip service to taking all the races "one at a time"—harbored dread of Talladega: the sixth race in the Chase and the final one in the round of 12. The GEICO 500, run there on May 1, endured 10 caution periods. All but two were issued for crashes that ensnarled a total of 56 cars. The field was 40. Harvick and Johnson were each in two.
Brad Keselowski won that race. If he is going to advance into the Chase's round of 8, he will likely have to win this one.
"I like Talladega," Keselowski said to NBC Sports. "Talladega has been good to me, and I'm going to drive my butt off, and at the end of the day, I have faith that if it is meant to be...we can't get down. There's a long way to go still."
Remember Martin Truex Jr.? The winner of two of the first three Chase races? Old news. He's still in position to advance, but it's precarious.
"We've just got to go to Talladega and hope that nothing crazy happens," Truex said to NBC Sports.
Good luck with that.
The most desperate position is that of rookie Chase Elliott, who brings up the year among the 12 in the round and is 25 points out of eighth place. He has to win the next race. If so, it will be his first career victory.
Chase, on the cusp of Chase elimination, said:
I just will go there (Talladega) and race our hearts out and try to win, I guess. That's about all we can do, I guess. We have something to be proud of in the way we have been running. There are just some things we can't control. I don't know how to fix that stuff, but I appreciate so hard. ...These guys deserve better. ...We are bummed, but what do you do? You just have to move on.
The reigning champion, Kyle Busch, is third in the standings behind Harvick and Johnson—27 points ahead of the eighth-place cutoff at the moment but still not completely immune to dire fate.
"You just try to stay even," Busch said to NBC Sports. "You try not to get too worried about it, or too jacked up or down about it. It's just another race that we have to go to on the schedule. I've been really excited to go there before, and I think I have bad luck out of my way, and I'm going to win it and I'm on the hook."
It takes good fortune to win this Chase, but the two at the top represent more than a coincidence.
NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton said of Harvick: "I"ve never seen anything like it. I've never seen a team that so many times, over and over again in high-pressure situations, finds a way to do it. ...Harvick doesn't mind getting behind. He finds it a challenge."
"We're just fortunate to have a lot of guys that won't quit," Harvick's crew chief, Rodney Childers, said. "They don't take no for an answer. They don't care how many hours they work. They don't care what they have to do. They just try to make it happen."
By the way, the Chase is only half over.
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All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.