The championship could hinge on who avoids 'The Big One'
They're not very much alike. One is single, loves the night life, is a tweeting machine, tells you exactly what's on his mind -- especially in the heat of the moment -- and often drives like he's competing in the last race of his life. The other is married, enjoys quiet nights at home with his wife and newborn child, is a texting addict, rarely lets his emotions get the best of him, and rarely takes chances on the track.
Yes, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, the only two drivers left in the Chase that have a legitimate shot at the Sprint Cup title, don't have much in common. But this week they are in agreement on one thing: They don't enjoy racing at Talladega Superspeedway, home to the biggest crapshoot in the Chase.
Why? Because at Talladega -- more than at any other track on the circuit -- drivers don't control their own destiny. 'Dega is the biggest track (2.66 miles) on the Cup schedule, and to limit the top speeds on the cars to 190 mph or so, NASCAR puts restrictor plates on the carburetors, which reduce airflow to the engines and therefore keep the top speeds down. But this also causes the cars to run in large packs. When one driver makes a slight mistake, it can cause a massive, 20-car pileup in the blink of an eye. The championship could very well be decided on who can avoid the Big One on Sunday: Hamlin or Johnson.
Johnson, the four-time defending champ, holds a six-point lead over Hamlin with four races left on the schedule. This is as close as the points have ever been between the top two drivers at this point in the season in the Chase era, which began in 2004. This makes Talladega, in my estimation, the most important race of the season.
Here are the five drivers, including the last two standing in the title hunt, I'll be watching when the green flag flies on Sunday afternoon in central Alabama:
There's a reason Johnson isn't a big fan of this race: He hasn't been particularly lucky at Talladega. He's failed to finish seven of his 17 starts at the track, including the race in the spring when the Big One took him out with nine laps to go and caused him to wind up 31st.
What will Johnson's strategy be on Sunday? In Chases past he's dropped to the rear of the field early, simply cruising around in 30th place or so while hoping to avoid the big wrecks. He'll probably do the same on Sunday, and then charge up the field with about 20 laps to go. He'll certainly have enough power under the hood to win, but he won't have many friends on the track to help him draft. In fact, if one of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates isn't nearby late in the race, Johnson won't have a shot at the win, because no one else is going to help the four-time defending champion try to capture his fifth series title.
Hamlin's strategy will be simple on Sunday: Keep Johnson directly in front of him. Hamlin has already said that he's going to do his best to keep Johnson in his sights for the entire afternoon. Hamlin feels like he's better than J.J. at two of the three remaining races after this weekend (Texas and Homestead; Johnson, based on past performance, should have the edge at Phoenix) so Hamlin merely wants to survive Talladega and stay within striking distance of the No. 48 team.
Hamlin has never won a restrictor plate race, but he did finish fourth at 'Dega in the spring. He'd happily take that result on Sunday.
Under the old points system, Harvick would be sitting on a 264-point lead in the standings right now and would essentially have the title wrapped up. Alas, Harvick has struggled in the Chase, and he trails Johnson by 62 points. He's not out of it yet, but clearly his championship aspirations are on life support.
Harvick's best hope of gaining ground on Sunday is if both Johnson and Hamlin get caught up in the Big One and he somehow avoids it. To that end, he needs to do exactly the opposite of what Johnson and Hamlin do. If they bolt to the front, Harvick should fall to the back. If they drop to the rear, Harvick needs to aggressively charge to the front.
If nothing else, this will be a compelling storyline to follow. Harvick led only two laps at 'Dega in the spring, but one of those happened to be the last. If he wins again on Sunday, the race for the Cup could suddenly turn into a three-man sprint with three races to go.
Gordon's title hopes were pretty much destroyed last Sunday at Martinsville. Gordon had entered that race with 11 straight top-5 runs at NASCAR's shortest track, but he finished 20th and now trails Johnson by 203 points. It's another disappointing ending to a Chase for Gordon, who has yet to win a Cup in the playoff-style format.
Yet Gordon should be formidable at Talladega. He's still one of the best plate racers in the sport; Johnson acknowledges that Gordon taught him everything he knows about driving at Talladega. I've got a hunch that he'll be factor late on Sunday.
Though he's had an utterly forgettable season and is currently 19th in the standings, Junior is always a threat to take the checkers at 'Dega. He used to own this place, winning four straight races here between 2001 and '03. But he hasn't been to Victory Lane at Talladega since 2004.
Can he notch his first victory of the season on Sunday? I think so. His crew chief, Lance McGrew, has poured an extra amount of time and resources into preparing Junior's car for this weekend. In more than a year together, McGrew and Earnhardt have yet to win. If they're going to stay together for 2011 -- and for the record, I think they will, though owner Rick Hendrick recently said he'll review the situation in the offseason -- they need to show during the last month of the '10 season they have what it takes to contend for wins.
Expect Junior to bolt to the front in the opening laps, and he'll likely try to stay there for the rest of the afternoon. For one day this season, I think Earnhardt will shine: It says here he wins on Sunday.
One other prediction: Johnson will leave Alabama with a double-digit lead in the points.