NASCAR Chase Week 6 at Talladega: Racing Power Rankings
The longer the Chase for the Cup plays out under the new rules, the more it comes off like yet another reboot of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 — a ride that should feel familiar suddenly doesn’t after a surprise hijacking. And now, just when the situation aboard this runaway playoff couldn’t seem more tense, the next stop is Talladega—that 2.66-mile monstrosity in Alabama's northeast central plains that is known for gathering cars in a gale-force crash called the Big One.
Last year, under a tested playoff format that graded the 12 best drivers on a cumulative curve, there was at least some hope of saving one's postseason after a poor showing at Talladega. But this year there will truly be no possibility for recovery for underperforming drivers now that Talladega is an elimination race in the Chase's knockout-style format. Some drivers who are facing the cut are huge names with about as much room to breathe as their cars, which will be muzzled by restrictor plates in keeping with NASCAR’s nearly 30-year tradition of trying to keep this stock car race from turning into an air show. And those drivers have been dreading the start of Sunday’s Geico 500 (2 p.m. Eastern, ESPN) for good reason: Talladega not only has a reputation for crowning longshot winners, but during the Chase’s decade-long history, a playoff contender’s odds of winning have been 50-50.
Last week’s post-race melee at Charlotte was just a setup to this fast-thickening plot—the forceful takeover. This week, though, is when the action finally runs off the rails.
The racing world gasped upon learning that the seven-time F1 champ was fighting for his life after hitting his head on a rock while skiing in the French Alps last December. Then it gasped again at the revelation that doctors had placed the German-born, longtime Ferrari pilot in a coma to better address brain injuries that were deemed catastrophic. But an occasion to exhale finally arrived late last week when word came down, through Schumacher’s son Mick, that the 45-year-old racer “is waking up slowly” since being discharged from a hospital in southeast France to a purpose-built mini-clinic inside his Swiss mansion. Jean Todt, the FIA president who was formerly Schumacher’s boss at Ferrari, had more progress to report after visiting Schumacher at home, saying he expects that his ex-charge “can lead a relatively normal life again within a short period of time.” The development is just what the doctor ordered for a sport that is still reeling from the horrific accident involving driver Jules Bianchi, who remains hospitalized with a serious head injury after skidding into a recovery vehicle during the waning laps of the waterlogged Japanese Grand Prix on Oct. 5.
In her debut column for Derek Jeter’s new jocks-only e-zine, The Players’ Tribune, Patrick revealed racing’s favorite power couple to be, well, no different than most couples really. It’s just that her more explosive clashes with Stenhouse tend to occur on the track at over 150 mph, and not over pettier matters like dirty dishes or what his mother thinks. Another revelation was Patrick’s naked desire to finish ahead of Stenhouse in the standings before the season is out. (For now, he’s got 15 points on her.) As couples mediation venues go, they won’t find a better one than Talladega. Both are top-25 rated restrictor-plate racers, and both were solid at Talladega back in May. Stenhouse finished 10th and Patrick challenged for the lead until an overeager overtake by Brad Keselowski quite literally knocked the wind out of her No. 10 Chevrolet. On the biggest crapshoot track of them all, one famous for producing more one-hit wonders than any other, these two—who have one more thing in common: zero wins in Cup racing—are even money to make it to Victory Lane. Goodness knows it would make for one heckuva twist in their relationship—especially if Patrick got there first.
On a hectic night under the lights in Charlotte, the Ganassi ace placed a season-high third. On a hectic day under the sun in Talladega, he could place even higher. Other than teammate Kyle Larson, no driver outside of the Chase has scored more points on superspeedways. What’s more, McMurray won the 'Dega fall feature in 2013.
His 10th-place finish at Charlotte was his best of the five Chase races so far, but it may be a case of too little, too late for Kahne. Though he sits squarely in eighth place in the standings, right at the cutoff line for Round 3, his destiny is completely out of his hands. Only a big win or a Big One can keep his ’14 title ambitions alive now, and given the way his Chase has gone (three finishes of 20th or worse, plus a 13th-place showing in Chicago), Kahne can only pray that his higher ranked rivals have the kind of day that he usually does.
Speaking of people who are fighting for their playoff lives, who figured Kenseth would be moved to do so literally last week at Charlotte? After all, the man carries a reputation for being a mild mannered and soft-spoken ambassador of his sport—an illusion that was shattered, of course, when he jumped Brad Keselowski in a dark alley. Kenseth dispensed this street justice in apparent retaliation for the post-race bump Keselowski delivered as Kenseth was unbuckling himself from his car. Strangely, Kenseth was not penalized for his assault so much as lauded. (Said deposed Chaser Clint Bowyer: “If Matt Kenseth comes running at you and puts you in a headlock and punches you in the nose, there's no jury needed. There's no judge needed. You're guilty. Period.”) To wrestle down a win at Talladega, something Kenseth hasn’t done in two years, he’ll have to show an even greater sense of urgency. Without a victory, his chances of winning a second Cup title will be as good as knocked out.
Last week we weren’t ready to accept that JJ’s search for title No. 7 might be running out. This week, alas, we are. Since his last victory at Talladega, in the spring of 2011, Johnson has placed 26th, 35th, 17th, 5th, 13th and 23rd on the super speedway. That said, a fifth-place car, which Johnson says his No. 48 Chevy has proved to be on its best days of late, could be good enough to get him into the next round. Of course all he’d need is a Big One to take out the top four drivers.
Yes, he was wrong for crashing into one driver while he was parked and unharnessing, and for attempting to spin out another just before that. Call it conduct unbecoming of a former series champion. Still, how is it that Keselowski was docked $50,000 (reportedly for his reckless driving in the garage and on pit road) and Kenseth’s wallet went untouched when it was he who jumped Keselowski? Moreover, the incident was but a sampling of the many assaults on Keselowski last week. One came during the cool down lap when Denny Hamlin brake-checked him in apparent displeasure for how Keselowski raced him in the closing laps of the race. Another came after when Tony Stewart backed into the front end of Keselowski's No. 2 Ford. Yet another came in the garage area when Hamlin charged at Keselowski on foot before a phalanx of Gibbs team members interceded. Hamlin, too, escaped prosecution, while Keselowski was fined and placed on a four-race probation along with Stewart. (Another head-scratcher: Stewart’s penalty, which also includes a $25,000 fine, was stiffer than anything he’s going to see after fatally running over dirt track racer Kevin Ward Jr.) But more damaging for Keselowski than the fine and the probation is the fact that he goes into Talladega with few friends. Those who don’t already carry a grudge against him for losing his Absolute Zero cool last week surely resent him for how recklessly he tackled Talladega last spring when an attempt to pass Danica Patrick sent him spinning off the track and set him back six laps. It’s a less-than-ideal setup for a track where survival depends on solid alliances. All that said, Keselowski does have one big thing going for him: One of the few friends he has left is teammate Joey Logano, who secured a second-round bye with a victory at Kansas. Therefore, he is available to help Keselowski navigate the draft and the many enemies who will surely be parked in his path to victory—the ’12 champ’s last hope of cruising on to Round 3.
Ordinarily, any comparison of Earnhardt to Jimmie Johnson might track as a compliment. Yet it was anything but last week at Charlotte when Junior’s broken shifter problems unfolded like a replay of the issue Johnson experienced not two months earlier—complete with a vise-grip-as-Band-Aid solution. But while Johnson rallied to a ninth-place finish at Michigan, Earnhardt couldn’t manage any better than 20th at Charlotte. That put him behind the eight ball going into Talladega, where anything less than a victory will end his playoff run. While he’s won there a staggering five times—the first four coming consecutively—his last 'Dega win was almost 10 years ago. The closest he has come since is second place twice, most recently a year ago—which should provide a measure of comfort to those who would rather not see his season become as meaningless as that of his favorite Washington football team.
Thanks to a third-place showing at Charlotte, Hamlin enters Talladega less desperate than most drivers. Another measure of comfort is the fact that he’s scored more points in restrictor plate races this year than the field—his biggest bump, naturally, coming last May when he grabbed a late lead at Talladega and hung on to win. A finish between 15th and 17th at worst would be good enough to get him into the next round, and Hamlin could certainly do that much or better provided he again steers clear of the Big One—which struck just before he grabbed the checkered flag in the spring.
In 11 years of Cup racing Edwards has never won a restrictor plate race. Fortunately for him he doesn’t have to this week. A finish between 18th and 20th will be good enough to get him into the next round. He’s been far better than that of late in the Chase—placing fifth and eight at Kansas and Charlotte, respectively. If he can avoid blowing a tire, a late fluke that doomed him to a 30th-place finish at Talladega in May, he should advance. The prospect is as crazy as it is commendable, given the fact that Edwards had one foot out the door and every reason to stop trying after announcing his decision to leave his longtime Roush Fenway team for Joe Gibbs Racing barely two months ago.
After a shaky couple of races to start the Chase, which saw him placing around 16th on average, Newman has firmly established himself as a top-eight driver at the very least. That’s earned him a comfortable margin for error this week at Talladega where he only needs to finish between 19th and 21st at worst to clinch an elite eight spot. That’s well within his limits. In his last six starts Newman has placed ninth on average.
If this mega-talented 22-year-old wasn’t already a source of frustration—only because he was a freak accident away from making the Chase as a rookie—then surely this nugget from NASCAR will get your goat: Had he qualified for the playoffs, he would rank second in points behind Joey Logano right now. Larson might have even slotted himself alongside Logano in Round 3 already had he saved his No. 42 Chevy from hitting the wall while leading in Charlotte late. Perhaps that’s too many hypotheticals to consider for a driver who missed two golden opportunities: one to make his first postseason, another to win his first race. But when a driver so young is getting so close so early in his career, it’s hard to resist playing the What-If game.
A week after surviving Kansas, a track where his history of not finishing races preceded him, Busch consolidated that effort with an incident-free weekend at Charlotte, grabbing the pole and finishing fifth. It was a dramatic turnaround by a driver for whom aggression bordering on recklessness has long been a calling card. Expect the trend to hold at Talladega, a place where the junior Busch has been downright disciplined. He last crashed there three years ago and will need to keep that streak going in order to finish between 24th and 26th at worst. That threshold is the most forgiving of all the Chasers who control their own destinies.
His second-place effort at Charlotte last week saved a less-than-stellar outing in Kansas the prior week. Now he only needs to finish between 16th and 18th at worst to keep his drive for championship No. 5 alive. That seems doable for him at Talladega, a mercurial track where Gordon has nonetheless collected six victories—the most among active drivers. Although like Junior, it’s been a while since Gordon has parked in 'Dega's Victory Lane, almost seven years in fact, he’s been steady in the interregnum—or, at least, as steady as one can reasonably expect to be at that track. Throw out his 39th-place showing there in May, and his average finish over the prior three races zooms to ninth.
Harvick’s cathartic victory at Charlotte assures this much: At least four more weeks will pass before the moral of his 2014 season is truly revealed. But that doesn’t much curb the temptation to hazard a draft, like: He who has the fastest car doesn’t always win. It’s the natural conclusion to draw now that Harvick, who—it bears repeating—has led more laps and miles than anyone all season, has gone nearly six months between wins. His latest triumph now frees him up to help out his struggling Hendrick partners—in particular, Johnson, Kahne and Earnhardt. They are suddenly more desperate for a win than ever.
It is tempting to pick Logano to win at Talladega this week given the way his performance has been trending over the first half of the Chase. His five-week effort reads more like a time signature of music that one composed on the track: 4, 1, 4, 1 and 4. As massive as another win would be for Logano—not only a boost to his own soaring self-belief, but a major blow to the garages of Hendricks and Gibbs, which house some of his stiffest competition—it’s more likely that he’ll shelve his ambitions for a week to assist Keselowski, whose once bright title hopes are suddenly flickering. And if Logano were indeed to succeed in making that happen, who knows? He might be able to trade in that favor for another down the road, when there'll be pressure to keep posting top-four finishes at an even higher tempo.