Championship contenders Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin lead the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to its last restrictor plate event of 2010 Sunday at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.
Restrictor plate racing is more than just a rules package, it’s a powder keg. All it takes is the slightest miscalculation to ignite a very short fuse that leads to an explosive mix of speed and sheet metal.
Winning at the restrictor plate races takes a unique combination of speed, anticipation and sheer luck.
“Plate racing comes and goes in streaks like you wouldn’t believe. Sometimes you can’t get in a wreck, and sometimes you can’t miss it,” said Kevin Harvick.
Harvick is the prohibitive favorite heading into the fourth and final plate race for the Sprint Cup Series this year. He’s become this year’s master at dodging the land mines across a 1,400-mile minefield that made up the three plate events thus far this year.
The driver of the No. 29 Chevy fielded by Richard Childress Racing has been stellar at Daytona and Talladega this season. He’s notched wins in the last two plate races and a seventh in the Daytona 500.
In February he had arguably the best car down the stretch but lost the race with the multiple green, white, checker finishes.
His average finish of 3.0 in the plate races is unparalleled this season, and he brings a Chase incentive to Talladega; this is his place to make up ground.
The 62-point gap between him and first place Jimmie Johnson represents the difference between first and 12th place. If Harvick is going to make a move, it will have to start at Talladega.
RCR’s Superspeedway program, coupled with the Earnhardt-Childress Engine package, has proven to be the best in the business.
If you’re looking beyond Harvick, a good place to start for a winner at Talladega is driver 88.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the sentimental favorite to be sure going into White Knuckle Weekend.
He has an average finish of 6.3 in the plate races this year, and he’s third in average running position over the last five years at Talladega. Only Denny Hamlin and, surprisingly, Joey Logano have run better lap after lap. It’s always better to run near the front. There’s a much smaller chance of stepping in someone else’s mess if it’s in the rear view mirror.
After this past weekend’s race at Martinsville, Junior may have momentum on his side. Martinsville couldn’t be more different from Talladega, but once you get to the front it all feels the same. Maybe Martinsville helped Junior remember what it’s like to lead again.
Junior has one more intangible going for him: He’s got a knack for the dramatic.
He offered up one of this season’s most stirring moments driving the No. 3 Wrangler Chevy to a Nationwide Series win at Daytona.
It was 10 years ago at this race when his late father captured his breathtaking 76th and final career victory.
Past Harvick and Dale Jr., nobody has as much of an edge heading into Talladega as a couple of other drivers with ECR engines under the hood: Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya.
McMurray won the Daytona 500 and finished second at Talladega in April behind Kevin Harvick. His 14th place restrictor plate average finish is pulled down by a 39th-place showing at Daytona in July.
Besides, it just feels like McMurray may not be done winning yet this season.
Montoya may be a dark horse. He had the best seat in the house for the Harvick vs. McMurray duel at Talladega in April. He’s fourth in average running position at ‘Dega among drivers entered this Sunday.
He’s got a 13.3 average finish on the plate tracks this year.
His 10th at the Daytona 500 and third at Talladega in the spring are tarnished by being collected in an accident at Daytona in July, relegating him to a 27th place finish.
Plus, Montoya does something that’s hard to do at Talladega: He takes care of his stuff. He’s only got one DNF in seven starts.
Some of the Ford, Toyota and Dodge fans might be offended by this list of faves headed into White Knuckle Weekend, but here’s a little fact to make you feel smart around the water cooler: Of the 574 laps of restrictor plate competition in the Sprint Cup Series this year (including green, white, checker finishes), Chevy has led 282 laps.
Dodge, Ford and Toyota have only led 10 more combined.
The Bowties are tough to beat in ‘Bama.