NAPERVILLE, Ill. -- Now that Denny Hamlin has saved the Chase by closing within six points of Jimmie Johnson's lead in the standings, expect all hell to break loose at Talladega Superspeedway on Halloween Sunday.
Of course, a tight points race isn't necessary for that to happen at Talladega, one of the sport's most treacherous and frightening tracks. The mere mention of Talladega sends a cold chill down the spine of any Cup driver who realizes that on the restrictor plate track where the cars race in one large pack, mayhem lurks around every corner.
Neither Johnson, nor Hamlin will be able to relax until the checkered flag drops because so many of these contests have ended in massive crashes in the final laps that can dramatically change where drivers finish. This mad scramble form of racing may be exciting to the fans, but it is abhorred by the drivers who realize there is far too much risk than reward at Talladega.
For Johnson and Hamlin that is certainly true because their entire season could literally go up in flames -- or at least a mangled race car -- at Talladega, ruining either drivers' dreams in the Chase.
Take a trip around the infield at Talladega Superspeedway on any race weekend and one will certainly find an assortment of odd and interesting creatures that revel in the tracks' atmosphere. Schedule a Talladega race for Halloween and expect those creatures to become even more frightening.
But the style of racing that takes place on the 2.66-mile strip of asphalt at the high-banked superspeedway can often resemble a physics experiment gone awry. And when NASCAR added restrictor-plates to the race cars in an effort to keep the machines from exceeding 200 mph back in 1988, it created a monster that has left the sanctioning body with no way to keep "The Big One" from happening.
The Big One is the term used for the one or two major crashes that often take place at Talladega where 10-20 cars get wadded up in a single crash. If Johnson or Hamlin is involved in "The Big One" on Sunday it could be a devastating blow, turning their championship dreams into a nightmare.
"We're rolling into Talladega," Johnson said. "We all know what can happen there."
When it comes to racing at Talladega, Johnson has a slight advantage with one win, four top-5 and seven top-10 finishes in 17 starts. Johnson's lone victory came in the spring race in 2006, but over his last three races there, Johnson has finished 30th or lower twice. He was 30th in April 2009, sixth in this race last year and 31st at Talladega this past spring.
Hamlin has no wins, three top-5 and three top-10 finishes in nine Talladega starts. He was 38th in this race last year and fourth in April.
Unlike Martinsville, where Hamlin's win was his third-straight and the ninth-straight race either Johnson or Hamlin has won there, Talladega is certainly not a track where either driver is considered to be one of the favorites.
"We have to go to Talladega and do our best there," Johnson said. "But I am not going to get caught up in just worrying about one guy. It's just not worth it at this point. After we get out of Talladega, more of a clear strategy kind of unfolds and we know who we really need to race and what to do from there. Hopefully we are in a position to protect. That's the position I want to be in. I want to leave here with a win; there is no doubt about that."
Hamlin's strategy at Talladega is to be ahead of Johnson or, at the very least, be in close contact with the four-time Cup champion.
"Jimmie has had his fair share of crashes and we've had our fair share of crashes at Talladega," Hamlin said. "If I'm around him or right behind him, if I'm going to be in a bad spot, say I'm 15th and get caught in a wreck then I make sure that he's around me, then more than likely he's going to be in or put himself in a bad spot too. It's just whoever comes through the wreck. That's not saying that I'm going to follow him around for 500 miles or whatever next week because honestly I feel like we have a better Talladega package than what those guys have had.
"We've been very, very strong on superspeedways, especially Talladega. We've been able to lead a ton of laps there, we've got a good finish there last year. For me, I would like to just worry about winning the race and if I do get shuffled though, I would like to just put myself in a safe spot."
Some drivers like to play head games with one another, the biggest challenge this weekend will be overcoming the track itself.
"I don't really think that there's any type of head game to be played at Talladega," Johnson said. "I think it's really about playing your odds. Knowing Denny like I do, he's a man that likes to play the odds. He's really sharp with that stuff. He's into numbers. He's into stats. He's into all that stuff. And it's not a bad strategy. Ideally you put the No. 29 [Harvick] and the No. 11 [Hamlin] and the No. 48 [Johnson] all in a group and if we all leave there with the same amount of points and we race in, it is what it is. So I certainly understand that approach. I think it's more of a smart decision based on odds than it is any type of mental tactic."
And don't forget about Kevin Harvick. He is only 62 points out with four races left this season. His record at Talladega is better than both Johnson and Hamlin's so if both of those drivers have a problem at Talladega, Harvick could be the man who gains the most this weekend.
Harvick scored his first Talladega victory back in April, a win included in his four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes in 19 starts at that track.
So after much criticism over the format of the Chase and how Johnson seems to pull away from the field earlier and earlier every year, NASCAR finally has a Chase worth talking about. And that gives Hamlin some say in the outcome.
"I think given how I raced and things like that over the course of this Chase so far, this is about the best-case scenario for us," Hamlin said. "I like being behind and chasing a guy. I do not like playing defense at all. Right now I feel like we're in a great position going to Talladega where, who knows, we could both finish 41, 42, or opposite spectrums. Nobody knows once we go next week. I know we've been extremely strong at Talladega for the last two to three years. So I'm pretty confident."
And confidence could be the key to this years Chase just as long as they survive Sunday at Talladega.
Last week, Jeff Gordon said one of NASCAR's biggest problems regarding declining television ratings and attendance was the lack of rivalries in the sport. Ironically, the four-time Cup champion may have sparked one of his own with Kurt Busch on Sunday at Martinsville when the two drivers were involved in a bumping incident on the track, then engaged in a war or words afterward.
"[Gordon] was on the outside lane on restarts and so yeah, he shoved me in there and I shoved him back in Turn 4," Busch said. "I didn't mean to get into him that hard, but over the years with Gordon here, back in the 97, wrecking the 2 car, whether you're a current Kurt fan or ex-Rusty [Wallace] fan, he's wrecked the 2 car a lot here.
"His chicken move afterward wasn't called for, but that shows the game we're going to play. One bump versus another bump, it still seems like the score card isn't even."
Gordon, of course, didn't share Busch's take on the incident.
"Either he didn't know I was there or whatever and cut down on me and I got into him," Gordon said. "Kurt Busch doesn't have a very long fuse so either it was payback or he just got angry really quick and decided to wreck us. We just did what we could do to come home with the best finish we could. I gave him a reason to get upset. So I wish I hadn't of done that. But, we were racing hard. And then what it does for us for the championship is really insignificant in my opinion. At this point we're just racing to try to get the best finishes and we'll continue to do that as we move forward.
"So, that's just have at it boys, right? That's just racing; that's just part of it."
There's nothing like a good feud heading to Talladega but at that track, don't expect either driver to engage in another round of payback because the risks are simply too great. But Busch has proved that he has a long memory, so keep an eye on these two drivers over the remainder of the season now that both are pretty much out of championship consideration.
Fernando Alonso's victory in the rain-soaked Korean Grand Prix vaulted him into the lead for the 2010 F1 World Championship. The Spanish driver's win, combined with a disastrous finish by Red Bull's Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, all but ended their quest at a championship.
Webber crashed as the wet track began to dry and Vettel led from the start of the race before a blown engine sent him to the sidelines. That puts Alonso in the lead by 11 points with just two races left in the season. But despite the victory, Alonso insists he is not the favorite to win the World Championship.
"Now there are still 50 points up for grabs; Red Bull are still favorites but we will continue to do our utmost and try to always get on the podium," Alonso said. "It is a great feeling winning this way, as it was a very difficult victory given the track conditions."
With just 11 points separating the top two drivers over the final two races this season, there will be plenty of drama to determine this year's F1 champion.
"I've got to give Clint Bowyer a big kiss on the lips." -- NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick after his third-place finish at Martinsville after swapping pit crews with teammate Clint Bowyer.
"The racing is different these days. Rain is different and I have to learn how to do, how to get it done." -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. after finishing seventh at Martinsville.
"Who said it was over?" Denny Hamlin after his win at Martinsville cut Jimmie Johnson's lead in the Chase to just six points with four races remaining.
After watching Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler crash and burn on Sunday by tossing four interceptions against the Washington Redskins, it's back to the track where there will be more of the same in Sunday's race at Talladega. Talladega is always a wild weekend, both on the track for the drivers and off the track for the spectators. Having the race on Halloween makes it an even more surreal experience.