Jerry Bonkowski

Talladega will likely clear Chase fuzziness

Posted October 5, 2012

— It's going to be either all downhill or uphill for drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup following Sunday's Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

The fourth of 10 races in NASCAR's premier event of the season, Talladega is where we're likely to see the framework of who will be the remaining bonafide contenders to win this year's championship next month in the season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway in south Florida.

During the first three races of the Chase, we've seen some interesting storylines emerge:

1. Brad Keselowski, even driving for a lame duck manufacturer that won't be in NASCAR next season (Dodge), has been the biggest surprise thus far with wins in two of the first three Chase races.

2. Denny Hamlin appears fully recovered from the meltdown that cost him the Chase in 2010. If anything, Hamlin has emerged stronger and more confident than ever – and could be one of the biggest obstacles for other drivers to overcome … if he doesn't win it all outright by himself.

3. Jimmie Johnson has unquestionably regained the form that led him to a record five consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 2006 through 2010. If he doesn't win title No. 6 this year, he's going to make it extremely difficult on whoever does.

Sure, doing well Sunday at Talladega is important for those three drivers, but there's a plethora of other drivers who will either see their Chase chances reinvigorated or witness the beginning of the end of those chances.

We're talking specifically about defending Cup champ Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and potential dark horse Clint Bowyer. All four drivers are far enough behind – yet still close enough – to begin a potential championship-earning rally if they do well at 'Dega.

Keep your eyes particularly on Kahne and Earnhardt on Sunday. Earnhardt used to own the 2.66-mile superspeedway, with five previous wins there, but none in a half-decade.

Kahne, meanwhile, is driving for the best team and in the best equipment he has ever had in his nine-year Cup career. While his overall record at Talladega hasn't been much to write home about up to now, given how well he's done thus far this season as a member of the Hendrick Motorsports stable of drivers, Kahne could potentially be on the verge of a huge blowout both at 'Dega and in the Chase.

Suffice to say, and even if a non-Chaser like Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards wins Sunday, the 12 drivers in NASCAR's so-called playoffs know just how important – and how much of a wild-card – Talladega will be in the overall Chase picture.

If they can successfully emerge from one of the most difficult tracks on the circuit, they have much easier tracks the rest of the way in the Chase, including Charlotte next week, Kansas, the stubborn little short track at Martinsville, the always challenging and high-speed race at Texas, the one-mile flat surface at Phoenix and the season finale for all the Chase marbles at Homestead.

That is, if someone doesn't clinch beforehand, which has never been done in the previous eight years of the Chase, and is not likely to happen this year, either.

Last but not least, there are five remaining drivers in the Chase that are going to need nothing short of a miracle to rebound back into contention.

Mathematically, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle all still have a theoretical shot at getting back into the swing.

But Kenseth, who is in his final season at Roush Fenway Racing (he'll move to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2013 season), has had nothing but bad luck in the first three races of the Chase.

It's no wonder, then, that Kenseth is last in the Chase, 72 points behind series leader Keselowski.

While it would appear all is lost for Kenseth, as he's nearly the equivalent of two wins behind Keselowski, stranger things have happened in the Chase.

Look back to 2006, when Johnson was over 150 points out of the lead after the fall race at Talladega. With six races remaining after that event, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus began thinking about next season, rather than what was still left to be.

But in an ironic twist, Johnson and Knaus refused to give up and ultimately won the title that season, the first of five in a row.

Granted, the points system was different back then, but if you compare the old system with the new one, the disparity isn't all that much different.

But if Kenseth has yet another bad race and drops to, say, 90 or more points back after Sunday, maybe team owner Jack Roush will give him an early release from his contract because all hope of Kenseth winning a second career Cup title for RFR before he departs would be completely gone.

It's been an interesting start to the Chase, similar to the way Tony Stewart kicked off last year's or how Greg Biffle won the first two races of the 2008 Chase, only to eventually fall behind as Johnson would go on to win his third straight title that season.

Perhaps the best analogy to describe where we're at in the Chase is this: because Talladega is so big and holds so many fans (more than 135,000), it's not surprising if those ticket holders sitting in the nosebleed seats need binoculars to see the sometimes fuzzy long-distance action around the track.

But after Sunday, a lot of the fuzziness in the Chase is going to start becoming significantly clearer.

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