Mash The Gas: Talladega Preview

Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet, and Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, lead the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 3, 2015 in Talladega, Alabama. [Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images]

It’s Talladega time for the final race in the Contender Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. [Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

Buckle Up NASCAR fans because it is time for the most nerve-wracking, gut-wrenching, edge of your seat race of the season. Talladega Superspeedway hosts the 500 Sunday afternoon for the elimination race of the Contender round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. 500
Talladega Superspeedway
500.08 miles (188 laps)
Sunday, Oct. 25
2:30 p.m. (ET)
NBCSN, 2 p.m. (ET)
MRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
Only Charlotte and Kansas winner Joey Logano is safe this week as the Chase field gets trimmed to eight at the always unpredictable Talladega speed plant. This means the remaining eleven Chasers have most likely lost sleep over the task of fending off elimination at a place where so much is out of their control. To top it off, the two Chase drivers with the best Talladega driver rating, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth, are the two who must win to advance.

The Talladega race is a lottery where any driver can win and there are seven Chase drivers who hope their number is called to survive the toughest round of the Chase.

It will all shake out Sunday afternoon in the crapshoot known as the 500 at Talladega and here are some drivers to watch…

Matt Kenseth (Dan Margetta)
Everybody is jumping on the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Talladega bandwagon this week but don’t count out Matt Kenseth just yet as both drivers face must-win situations to advance in the Chase. Coming in at 10-1 odds, Kenseth has a Talladega win to his credit and he did finish second in this race last year, facing similar pressure to advance. He has the second best driver rating at Talladega, behind Earnhardt, and it could come down to a Kenseth-Earnhardt shoot-out for their Chase survival. The key could be help from teammates and both the Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing cars have been stout on the restrictor plate tracks. After getting wrecked out of the lead late in the Kansas race, Matt Kenseth and the #20 team are set to claim what they feel is their rightful place in the Chase field and get back what was taken from them last weekend. Sitting more than 30 points out of the cut-off, all that matters to Kenseth on Sunday is the victory. All bets are off at Talladega and I think we’ll see a different Matt Kenseth than we are used as he races with more aggression in his quest for a walk-off win to keep his Sprint Cup title hopes alive.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (John Wiedemann)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is always the consensus pick when it comes to plate racing at Talladega and Daytona. There is a good reason for that, six wins at Talladega including the victory in the spring to go along with the Daytona Coke Zero 400 victory in July makes him the draft master. The #88 team is bringing the car that won those plate races this season as well as the Budweiser Duel and finished third in the Daytona 500. That doesn’t mean everyone else should just pack it in and go home. With so much on the line for so many drivers, tempered aggression will be the key this weekend. Just because you have the top car at the track doesn’t mean you get to win, just ask Matt Kenseth. Earnhardt will need to be at the top of his game this weekend and his results on Sunday may show everyone the kind of racecar driver that he is. That, and he needs to stay away from Joey Logano’s front bumper.

Jeff Gordon (DM)
Jeff Gordon has the most restrictor plate race wins in the field with 12 and he’s listed at 12-1 odds this week as he seeks his first victory this season. The Hendrick cars have been consistently at the front of the field on the restrictor plate tracks this season and Gordon does own six Talladega victories to go with fifteen top five finishes. He does have a slim seven point cushion in the standings but is not anywhere near safe this week and Talladega presents a strong opportunity to grab a Chase win and advance. On the other hand, this is Jeff Gordon’s final restrictor plate race and with retirement on the horizon, maybe big picture thinking comes into play with a more conservative approach. Knowing what is in front of him, does Jeff Gordon take the late race chance and throw caution to the wind or does he bring the car home in one piece and move on with his retirement season? The decision could be the difference between Chase survival and disaster and that’s what makes Talladega so nerve-wracking for all involved.

Brad Keselowski (JW)
Last season Brad Keselowski won this very race at Talladega to propel himself into the next round of the Chase. He may need to do it again. Currently in seventh place in the standings, Keselowski is just seven points ahead of ninth place Kyle Busch. The situation isn’t the same as last season, Keselowski doesn’t need to win, he just needs to finish in second place to control his own destiny, just second place. With three wins in just 13 races at Talladega, Keselowski sure knows how to motor around the track. Only one DNF bodes well for the Penske driver as well. Talladega is the track where Keselowski won his first Sprint Cup Series race, if it can be the site of his next victory, he will simply move on to the next Chase round.

Kyle Busch (DM)
Last season Kyle Busch came to Talladega as the point leader and relatively safe to advance. He chose to ride in the back in the early stages and ended up getting caught up in a wreck, leaving Talladega as one of the drivers eliminated. This year, Busch is on the outside looking in, just six points behind the cut-off spot. I think this time, Kyle Busch races all day near the front, possibly hooking up with teammate Matt Kenseth. Busch is listed at 15-1 odds to win and his Talladega record includes one victory to go along with four top five finishes and five top ten results. However his average finish here is a dismal 22nd, but Kyle Busch performs best when he doesn’t have to think about anything other than driving the car and he is in that type of situation heading into this weekend. If they play their cards right, Kyle Busch and the #18 team can advance out of the Contender round and should they do so, they look to be very dangerous in the next round of three races. But first they have to get past Talladega which is way easier said than done.

Denny Hamlin (JW)
Denny Hamlin is the next safest driver in the standings behind Joey Logano, and he is not safe at all. With a slim 18 point cushion between himself and teammate Kyle Busch, Hamlin needs to finish 14th or better to control his place in the Chase Grid. There are obviously a huge number of mathematical scenarios that involve all of the other drivers, but no matter what, Hamlin can not have a bad race. Second place in the standings right now doesn’t mean a heck of a lot. Hamlin has one win, four top five and seven top ten finishes at Talladega with an average finish of 18.5. This race just might be the biggest step for Hamlin to get past on his way to the Championship finale. It is just amazing to think that even though he is in second place right now, one slip could end his Chase season.

Ryan Newman (DM)
Last season Ryan Newman and the #31 team point raced their way to the final and so far this season they have managed to stay alive in the Chase. That could change this weekend as Newman is currently outside the top eight cut-off, sitting eight markers behind. This is the first time in a long time that Newman will have to race his way forward and we’ll find out Sunday if this team has been holding anything back. Newman is listed at 40-1 odds and he has yet to score a victory here despite having five top five finishes and eleven top tens. Last season this team waited until the final race to make their charge and they nearly won it all. Now it’s go time for Ryan Newman and the #31 group and on Sunday we will see if they are up to the task to move on in this season’s Sprint Cup title chase.

Kurt Busch (JW)
Somewhat quietly, Kurt Busch has positioned himself in third place in the Chase standings. While we have talked about every driver other than Joey Logano being in a scary position, being near the top of the standings still helps. All season long, Kurt Busch and teammate Kevin Harvick have been fast at pretty much every track they race at. The same should be true this weekend. Busch is an excellent plate racer and even with no wins at Talladega, he gets solid finishes with 14 top ten and 6 top five runs in 29 events giving him the fifth best driver ranking among active drivers. Busch didn’t get to run the season opening Daytona 500 but scored a 12th place finish at Talladega in May and 5th at Daytona in July. If he sticks with those type of results this weekend, he should be able to move on to the next Chase round.

Eliminator Round Clinch Scenarios
With the understanding that Talladega is a wild card of a race, if the following drivers have the finishes below, they’re assured of one of eight spots in the Eliminator round of the Chase – regardless of the finishes of any other driver.
Joey Logano: With two wins in the Contender Round, he has clinched a spot.
Denny Hamlin: 14th and no laps led; 15th and at least one lap led; 16th and most laps led.
Kurt Busch: 8th and no laps led; 9th and at least one lap led; 10th and most laps led.
Carl Edwards: 7th and no laps led; 8th and at least one lap led; 9th and most laps led.
Kevin Harvick: 3rd and no laps led; 4th with a lap led.
Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski: 2nd or better; 3rd and at least one lap led; 4th and most laps led.
Martin Truex Jr.: 2nd and no laps led; 3rd and the most laps led.
Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth only control their own destiny with a victory at Talladega.

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