Mash The Gas: Talladega

It’s finally here, the Chase Wildcard known as Talladega and the Camping World RV Sales 500 set for Sunday afternoon. The unpredictability of both this event and the Talladega race track have to be on everyone’s mind as there is a better than average chance the point standings will see a major shuffling before the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams leave the Alabama facility.

Even if drivers avoid the inevitable “big one” accidents and race strong all day, a split second wrong decision on the final lap could mean the difference between first place and a twenty fifth place finish.

Want to pick a winner for Talladega? Place all the driver’s numbers on roulette wheel and spin it and go with where the white ball lands. Also, the second Talladega race has a history of unpredictability as the event went thirteen races with thirteen different faces in victory lane before Darrell Waltrip became the first repeat winner in 1982.

The green flag is scheduled to fly at 2:20pm Eastern in Alabama as the drivers hope to have cars that make it to the end after 188 scheduled laps at the 2.66 mile Talladega Superspeedway.

It’s a race where truly anyone can win but here are a few drivers to watch on Sunday.

Jimmie Johnson
Dan Margetta: While both Championship contenders Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson have run strong on the restrictor plate tracks this season, Johnson has the edge when racing luck is factored in. Johnson swept both races at Daytona and finished fifth here earlier in the year and appears to have things going his way in restrictor place races in 2013. In the past Johnson and the #48 team played it safe at Talladega, hanging out in the back and racing toward the front only in the final laps. That strategy won’t work with the Gen 6 cars as it is much more difficult to drive through the field so Johnson will have to race hard all day. If the team doesn’t let worrying about points force them into a mistake, they could be tough to beat on Sunday.

Matt Kenseth
John Wiedemann: Matt Kenseth has been able to turn his fortunes around during recent races and turn bad luck into good finishes. Overcoming adversity at Talladega is usually a different matter. Adversity normally ends with a wrecked race car. Talladega could easily derail a championship run through no fault of the driver. Kenseth, the defending champion of this race last fall also led 142 laps in the spring race and I expect him to be at the front for most of the race on Sunday as well. Look for Kenseth in victory lane this weekend with another Chase win.

Kyle Busch
DM: Talladega could present an opportunity for Kyle Busch to close ground and get back into the championship race. He’s raced well in the restrictor plate races this year however, mechanical issues and bad luck have resulted in poor finishes. He won the pole position at Daytona in July and finished 12th after being involved in a last lap crash. Busch’s car should be fast enough and he’s definitely aggressive enough to stay out front to avoid the accidents. Now if he can avoid pit road penalties and keep his cool inside the race car, Busch can very easily make up the lost points from Kansas and get the victory he says the team desperately needs.

Brad Keselowski
JW: The Chase spoiler is probably a role that Brad Keselowski is somewhat happy to play. If he can’t be in the Chase, last year’s champion would love to take as many Chase victories as he can. Can last weekend’s winner make it two in a row? Sure he can. Talladega is a track that has seen the most non-Chase drivers pick up victories. After winning his first Cup victory in 2009, Keselowski also won in the spring race last year and has six top ten results in nine races at Talladega.

Kevin Harvick
DM: Like Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick is also looking to Talladega as an opportunity to close the gap to the championship leaders. Harvick won the preliminary events at Daytona to begin the season before early crashes took him out of the Daytona 500 and the earlier Talladega race. In the July Daytona event, Harvick was a strong third and his resurgence of late should help keep him at the front of the field on Sunday. The EGR Engines the team races have been strong on the restrictor plate circuits this year and Harvick has a history of being a solid plate racer. If he can avoid the early bad luck, Harvick should be a factor in the finish at the checkered flag on Sunday.

Clint Bowyer
JW: Clint Bowyer has been pretty quiet in the Chase so far. Talladega could be a track for him to make some noise. A two time winner at Talladega while racing for Richard Childress in 2010 and 2011, Bowyer hasn’t yet found the magic with Michael Waltrip Racing at the Alabama track. Contending for a race win would be beneficial to an organization that, even though they caused it themselves, is under a black cloud this Chase season.

Carl Edwards
DM: It’s been a quiet Chase for Carl Edwards and the #99 team with not much to talk about so far. Talladega could change that as Edwards was the pole position winner here in May and finished in third place behind the surprise Front Row Racing teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland. While he doesn’t have a Talladega win yet, Edwards has been extremely close in the past and a late race charge for the win from the #99 car wouldn’t be too far-fetched on Sunday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr
JW: Where has Junior gone? It used to be if you were talking about a restrictor plate race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was part of the conversation. Junior has run well in Talladega races but hasn’t been able to find victory lane since the 2004 fall race. That final win was the end of a streak of seven races where Junior had five wins and two runner-up finishes. Since then, Junior has finished in the top ten only five times in seventeen races. In those seventeen races Junior has led laps in all but two of those races, including the race this spring. Can Junior return to victory lane at Talladega? The answer used to be easy, ten years ago.

Danica Patrick
DM: We’re back on the restrictor plate tracks so Danica Patrick becomes relevant once again. Her best NASCAR finishes have occurred in the plate races and she should be able to hang with the lead pack on Sunday. Remember, this is the unpredictable Talladega race on the circuit and if James Hylton, Dick Brooks, Lenny Pond, Ron Bouchard, and Bobby Hillin Jr. can all find victory lane in this event, why not Danica Patrick? Don’t laugh there’s a reason Vegas pushed her from 1000-1 odds last week to 40-1 odds at Talladega.

David Ragan
JW: Not a crazy thought to keep an eye on David Ragan, who is starting his 250th Sprint Cup Series race this weekend. Always solid at restrictor plate races, Ragan won the spring race at Talladega. While it was surprising for most to see the one of the “smaller” teams in victory lane, Talladega is a bit of an equalizer. Sweeping Talladega would be huge for Ragan and Front Row Motorsports, and seeing him or his teammate David Gilliland at the front of the field isn’t out of the question.

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