Every year, drivers bemoan Talladega Superspeedway. To hear them go on, it seems none of them truly wants to race there -- or at Daytona -- anymore, especially given the single-car conga lines that have become prevalent at both restrictor plate tracks. There is always talk that Talladega should be removed from the Chase schedule. Drivers claim that the race there is too unpredictable, and it has been dubbed the "wild card" of the playoffs. In fact, if NASCAR announced that it planned to drop Talladega from its schedule entirely and to limit Daytona to the season-opening Daytona 500 (for traditional reasons only), probably 90 percent of the drivers would have no complaints.
That would be a major mistake on NASCAR's part because Talladega and Daytona provide something that is desperately needed but scarcely seen on the Cup circuit these days: upsets. One of the problems with the sport in recent years, and perhaps one of the reasons why its popularity has waned, is that Cup racing has become top-heavy and somewhat predictable when it comes to race winners.
Just look at how this season began. The first nine races were won by Jimmie Johnson (who took two), Matt Kenseth (two), Kyle Busch (two), Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, and Kevin Harvick. Nothing but the big boys. Then the series went to Talladega and, surprise, David Ragan popped up and won for only the second time in his seven-season Cup career, driving for underfunded Front Row Motorsports. Afterward, Ragan's team had an emotional celebration in Victory Lane, and numerous other drivers said how happy they were to see him win.
Then boring reality returned, and the next four races were won by Kenseth, Harvick, Tony Stewart, and Johnson.
Races at restrictor plate tracks and, to a lesser extent, the schedule's two road courses, open possibilities for drivers who are outside the field's top dozen or so. That was proved once again this past Sunday as Jamie McMurray won at Talladega, giving both him and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing their first Cup victories in three years. In fact, since 2001, nearly one-fourth of the races (12 of 52) held at Talladega and Daytona have resulted in what could be considered upset wins, including Brad Kezelowski's breakthrough victory at Talladega in 2009, Trevor Bayne's out-of-nowhere win in the 2011 Daytona 500, and even 48-year-old Dale Jarrett's triumph at Talladega in 2005, the final victory of his career.
Meanwhile, true upsets are rare at the other tracks on the schedule. They happen on occasion, such as Regan Smith's winning at Darlington and Paul Menard's kissing the bricks at Indianapolis, both in 2011, but the frequency is far less than it is at restrictor plate tracks, where 23 percent of all races during the past 13 seasons have been upsets.
This is not to suggest that Cup racing needs an upset every other week. But without restrictor plate tracks, they would probably happen only once or twice a year at most, and that lack of unpredictability can become monotonous. Upsets are one of the things that make all sports so exciting. The day before the Talladega race, upsets were pulled off in Southeastern Conference football by Auburn (over Texas A&M), Mississippi (over LSU), Vanderbilt (over Georgia) and Tennessee (over South Carolina). Those games provided a jolt of energy throughout the conference and dominated national sports coverage.
Without the occasional upset, drivers are unable to have that breakthrough moment that propels them into the conversation and enables them to build their own fan base. That has been a major problem for the Cup Series recently. Consider that the past three Rookies of the Year have been Stephen Leicht, Andy Lally and Kevin Conway.
Supposedly they are the three best new drivers of the past three years, and yet none of them has made any sort of significant impact on the series. So, if anything, the Sprint Cup Series needs more moments like those provided by Talladega and Daytona, not fewer. Of course, the possibility of upsets could be why the big name drivers dislike those places so much. They don't want the new dark horses doing something that pushes them from their comfortable perch.
1. Jimmie Johnson (2nd previously) -- For the rest of the season, unless something unexpected occurs, whoever leads the point standings -- Johnson or Matt Kenseth -- will also sit atop the Power Rankings. Johnson deserves it right now, because even with his 13th-place showing at Talladega on Sunday, his average finish since the Chase began is 5.5, the series' best.
2. Matt Kenseth (1st) -- It's bad enough that he finished 20th at Talladega, but it was also the second-worst result among the 13 Chase drivers. (Hard-luck Kasey Kahne finished 36th). Next up is Martinsville, where Johnson has as many career victories as Kenseth has top-10s (eight each).
3. Kyle Busch (4th) -- Busch posted his fifth top-five finish in the six Chase races so far and moved to within striking distance of the points lead. (He is 26 out.) His crash and 34th-place outing at Kansas three weeks ago might end up being the race that keeps him from capturing his first Cup championship.
4. Kevin Harvick (3rd) -- With Johnson and Kenseth both finishing outside the top-10, Harvick missed a chance to pick up some significant ground in the standings. Instead, he finished 12th -- only one spot better than Johnson -- and is tied with Busch at 26 points out of the lead.
5. Jeff Gordon (5th) -- He also might have squandered his last chance to make a move toward the top. He finished one spot behind Johnson, in 14th, and now trails by 34 points. With four races left, that deficit is possible to overcome, but it is extremely unlikely that Gordon will.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (unranked) -- He came close to giving his restless fans a much-needed victory, but demonstrated the folly of waiting until the last lap to try to make a pass for the lead. If he had made a move one lap earlier, it might have been Earnhardt in the lead when the caution flag flew on the final lap.
7. Ryan Newman (7th) -- Newman has quietly had a solid Chase, posting four top-10s in the six races. Like Busch, his downfall came at Kansas, where he finished 35th. Had Newman managed another top-10 there, he currently would be sixth in the point standings instead of 11th.
8. Clint Bowyer (9th) -- Another out-of-the-spotlight race for Bowyer, who came in 10th at Talladega. He has finished between ninth and 17th in all six Chase races and has led a total of only nine laps. As a result, nobody seems to be talking about him anymore, which for Bowyer is a good thing right now.
9. Greg Biffle (unranked) -- Speaking of out of the spotlight, Biffle is on the way to yet another good but not great season. He trails Earnhardt by only one point in the standings, but he receives about one hundredth of the attention.
10. Jamie McMurray (unranked) -- Though he's not in the Chase, McMurray cracks the Power Rankings not only because he won at Talladega, but also because he has been one of the better drivers on the circuit since the Chase began. His average finish of 11.83 in the six races ties him with Bowyer for eighth-best.