Will the 'Big One' impact the 'Chase' Sunday
If there's going to be a Chase event that will greatly alter the profile of the Sprint Cup championship Sunday's race may be the one. We've already heard reports that Chase points leader Jimmie Johnson is planning a conservative approach to restrictor plate racing at Talladega by hanging back in the field and waiting until the final laps of the race to make a run to the front of the pack.
We all know that this approach has been known to work in the past at Talladega. This is the one racing format where a driver can come across the stripe in 25th place and then one lap later cross the stripe again as the new race leader. The late Dale Earnhardt Sr, a ten time winner at this track, was a master at making this move. But Johnson will have to be very careful. The same draft advantage that can quickly move a car to the front of the pack can be taken away by other drivers and that's when you start heading backwards again.
There's one aspect here that virtually certain: if Johnson can score another top five finish this Sunday at Talladega he will virtually have a lock on his history making fourth consecutive Sprint Cup championship.
Johnson goes into Sunday's race with a 118 point lead over Hendrick Motorsports team mate Mark Martin a driver who has made it clear in the past that he's not a fan of restrictor plate racing. In fact, Martin has already gone on record saying that he fully expects to get caught up in a big one just like he did last year early in the race. But Martin knows very well that Sunday will be his one golden opportunity to take a serious run at catching Johnson because the next two events, Texas and Phoenix, are venues where Johnson has very good numbers.
The same goes for Jeff Gordon, -150 points, who completes the trio of Hendrick Motorsports drivers at the top of the Chase standings. Gordon leads active drivers in wins at Talladega with six. Like his team mate Martin, the four time NASCAR champion is going to have to drive hard and make sure his other team mate, Johnson, is somewhere in is rear view mirror in order to gain ground towards the top of the standings.
Also be aware that the organization he represents, Hendrick Motorsports, knows quite a bit about getting the job done at this race track, They lead the team win category at Talladega with ten trips to victory lane.
DON'T OVERLOOK THE POTENTIAL DARK HORSES
Tony Stewart, fourth in the standings at -192, is the defending 2008 race champion and a strong candidate to win again Sunday. He's also well aware that this might be the one race where he can make some progress on Johnson's points lead. Also be aware that Stewart Haas Racing has that all important connection to Hendrick Motorsports.
Juan Pablo Montoya, 5th in the standings at -200, will be returning this Sunday with the same attitude and game plan that led to a good finish at Martinsville: "we have nothing to lose and everything to gain." Montoya set the fast time in qualifying last April and that clearly proves he knows the fast way around Talladega.
But the ultimate potential dark horse may be Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. We've all been following this team's story all season long. There's been non stop reports on performance levels and even focus issues. There's also been overwhelming cases of bad luck such as three blown right front tires during last week's race. If ever there was a race for this team to turn things around Talladega is it. Earnhardt has four consecutive wins, from October of 2001 to April of 2003, at this speedway. He understands restrictor plate racing and he learned the process from the very best: his father. The fact that his primary sponsor, Amp Energy, is also the race sponsor is an extra momentum booster.
By the way look for a drastic new look on Earnhardt's car during the Talladega weekend. His #88 Chevrolet will feature the names of 70,000 race fans who were winners of the recent concluded "Get On The 88" promotion.
On the topic of dark horses don't over look Kyle Busch who may be thinking about giving crew chief Steve Addington a parting gift. Talladega will be Addington's last race with Busch before new crew chief Dave Rogers takes over next week.
When it comes to success from restrictor plate racing don't overlook the name of Michael Waltrip. The highlights of his NASCAR career have come from restrictor plate races at Talladega and Daytona.
We all remember the Talladega race from last April. We've certainly seen frequent playings of Carl Edwards' last lap crash this week alone. We also watched young Brad Keselowski pull an upset win during the final 100 feet of the race. Keselowski will be returning to the Talladega Sprint Cup race this week in the same car: the #09 Chevrolet owned by James Finch. That makes him a potential dark horse in this race.
Two other rather interesting dark horses could turn out to be Roush Fenway Racing drivers Matt Kenseth and David Ragan. Their teams will be debuting the long awaited, and highly touted, new Ford engine known as the FR9. This project was three years in the making and was designed by premiere NASCAR engine builder Doug Yates and Ford Racing engineer David Simon. This is the first purpose built NASCAR engine to ever come from the Ford Motor Company.
Remember this is Talladega where the totally unexpected can occur within a fraction of a second. That element alone turns virtually the entire 43 car field into potential dark horse winners. That same element could also create a very close and exciting Chase For The Championship during the final month of the season.
THE VEGAS BREAKDOWN
The Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange, WSE, seems to agree that the winner of Sunday's Amp Energy 500 is going to be from the list of dark horse teams. Sitting on the top of the odds list are drivers Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr who are rated at a very favorable 7 to 1 odds.
The WSE has also assigned some healthy numbers to Jeff Gordon. The six time Talladega winner comes in at 9 to 1 this week. Right behind him are the trio of Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Juan Pablo Montoya at 12 to 1 odds.
Chase points leader Jimmie Johnson is ranked by the WSE at 14 to 1 which is the lowest Las Vegas ranking the three time champion has had all season long. Also in the lower tiers are Mark Martin and Carl Edwards at 16 to l while Ryan Newman is ranked at 18 to 1 this week.
Now for the disclaimer: NASCAR wants us to remind you that these numbers are for entertainment purposes only. They do not neither encourage or condone the placing of wagers on their races.
This is normally the part of the column where I attempt to share a silly little joke with you. Instead I'm going to tell you not to gamble on the results of a Talladega race. It's just too unpredictable.
THE RACE BREAKDOWN
The Amp Energy 500 is 188 laps around the mammoth 2.66 mile quad oval where the turns are banked at a massive 33 degrees.
The race has 44 pre registered entries meaning one of the teams will have to go home. Nine of the entries are on the go or go home list meaning they are outside of NASCAR's top 35 in owner's points and must earn their starting berth in the race based on their qualifying speeds. If Friday's qualifying is rained out then driver Regan Smith, and his #78 Furniture Row Motorsports team will be the odd man out.
This could actually become a problem because rain is in for the forecast for the Talladega-Alabama area this weekend. Friday's forecast calls for 79 degrees with a chance of showers. Rain is also in the forecast for Saturday with a day time high of 72 degrees. Sunday race day calls for partly cloudy skies with a day time high of only 64. That 15 degree temperature drop from Friday to Sunday could possibly impact track conditions which in turn could create a challenge for the crew chiefs who will have to figure out what changes their cars are going to need.
The Amp Energy 500 will be aired live by ABC sports on Sunday beginning at 12 pm eastern time. The race re airs will be Monday-3am eastern- on ESPN2, Monday-1pm eastern-on ESPN Classic and on Wednesday-12 pm eastern- on Speed.
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