This is it, the one race left in the Chase that could blow up the points standings. Talladega Superspeedway could be the great equalizer in this year's championship, the one event in the 10-race playoff that requires as much luck as skill to win.
Jimmie Johnson has been worried about 'Dega for weeks, and all the drivers who still have a shot at catching JJ --Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart -- have been pointing to Talladega as the place where they can make their move on the three-time defending champion. If they don't, well, the championship will essentially be over on Sunday afternoon.
What makes Talladega so dicey? The restrictor-plates that are put in the carburetors reduce top speeds to about 190 mph, which forces the cars to run in tight packs. One little bobble by a car can trigger the Big One, the so-called multi-car wrecks that are commonplace at Talladega and Daytona, the other track at which restrictor-plates are used. Drivers can't control their own destiny at 'Dega, which is why so many positively hate coming to the big track in Alabama.
Last year the entire tenor of the Chase changed at Talladega. Late in the race, Carl Edwards aggressively bump-drafted his teammate Greg Biffle as they headed into Turn One. Edwards tried to give Biffle an aerodynamic push that would propel both of them into the lead but Edwards hit Biffle too hard, which caused Biffle to lose control of his Ford. This ignited the Big One, taking out Biffle, Edwards and several other Chase drivers. Johnson, who was behind Edwards at the time, swerved to narrowly avoid the slew of spinning cars and emerged essentially scratch-free from the incident.
Just like that, the Chase was over. Edwards, who had trailed Johnson by 10 points heading into 'Dega, finished the race 29th. Johnson came in ninth and left the superspeedway with a 72-point advantage over Edwards. Johnson never again relinquished the points lead.
Now, Johnson owns a commanding 118-point lead over Martin. On Sunday, he'll be driving chassis number 482, which he last piloted at Daytona in February to a 31st place finish. Johnson has raced this car three times, and he's never put it in the top 10. But if Johnson can merely escape with a top 15, he'll be thrilled.
Talladega is one of Johnson's worst tracks on the circuit. In 15-career starts at the 2.66-mile tri-oval, he has one win and an average finish of 17.7. Johnson typically runs well on the last three tracks the circuit hits this season -- Texas, Phoenix, and Miami-Homestead -- and that's what makes Sunday's race so vital for the drivers trying to catch him. This will be their last best chance to make up ground.
But Martin hasn't been much better at 'Dega over his career than Johnson. In 43 starts at the biggest track on the Cup circuit, Martin has two wins and an average finish of 16.1. He hasn't finished in the top-five here since 2001 and he's repeatedly articulated how much he despises the place. In fact, when he was driving part-time for DEI last year, he refused to race at Talladega. But he does feel that the track "owes him one."
"I have a feeling I'm going to have a great Talladega race," Martin says. "I don't know if our competition will or not. But I wrecked on lap five the last time there. I've got a feeling that this just isn't going to happen this time. The law of averages is going to get you sooner or later."
On Sunday expect Martin -- along with Gordon and Stewart -- to do the opposite of whatever Johnson does. The last thing anyone near Johnson in the points wants to do is to stay close to him on the track. They're hoping Johnson will get collected in a wreck and they'll miss it. So if Johnson races to the front of the pack, Martin, Gordon and Stewart will likely fall back. If Johnson drifts to the back, the other Chasers will try to get to the front. At least that's the smart strategy in my book.
"I am racing with everything I got," Martin says. "If I could find a way to be better, I would. And I will continue to look and search for any way I can, going forward, to find a way to be better yet."
Martin hasn't taken the checkers at Talladega since 1997, but I agree with him: The track owes him. He's due some good luck. He's my pick to win on Sunday.