It’s now or never for a number of drivers at Talladega
There’s a rhythm to a typical NASCAR Sprint Cup Series weekend that sets the tone for Sunday’s race.
It starts even before you get to the track, when you know one or more drivers is on a hot streak, or someone has an especially good record at a given track, like Kyle Busch at Bristol or Jimmie Johnson at Dover.
On Friday, the cars unload and generally have 90 minutes or so of practice followed by qualifying a couple of hours later. It’s then where you see that Kevin Harvick is freaky fast, or the Penske Fords of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are lighting it up in qualifying again.
On Saturday you pay attention to who puts up good numbers in 10 consecutive lap averages, who’s struggling and what drivers and crew chiefs are saying about their own cars and who they have to worry about on Sunday. By the time you leave the track on Saturday night, you almost always have a good idea about who is going to win — or at least who will be a threat to win — on Sunday.
The exception that proves the rule is Talladega Superspeedway, especially in this day and age, when the cars are so equal.
From its inception, Talladega has been the most unpredictable track on the entire Sprint Cup circuit.
Look at the guys who’ve won here — Richard Brickhouse, Dick Brooks, Lenny Pond, Ron Bouchard and Phil Parsons, to name just a few. Guys you wouldn’t expect to win and in some cases guys who never won again.
In October 2006, Brian Vickers was third on the final lap when he ran into his teammate Jimmie Johnson on the backstretch and sent Johnson bouncing off leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. like the cue ball hitting the 8-ball on a pool table. Johnson and Earnhardt wrecked, Vickers won his first Cup race amid a hail of boos.
In the spring of 2009, unheralded Brad Keselowski won his first race and gave team owner James Finch his only Sprint Cup victory in 252 starts. In the process, Keselowski became the first driver in Cup history to make his first lap led in his career be the final lap of the race. And he also sent Carl Edwards airborne and into the fence.
In May 2013, Front Row Motorsports teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland finished 1-2. That team has made 554 starts and has just four top-five finishes, two of which came at Talladega.
All of which is a fairly long-winded way of saying the Geico 500 at Talladega could be a total crapshoot. Or not.
Here’s what we know for sure:
— The Geico 500 is the third and final race in the Contender Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. When the checkered flag falls, four drivers will be eliminated from championship contention and eight will advance to the Eliminator Round.
— Those outside the top eight right now are Matt Kenseth (-1), Keselowski (-19), Earnhardt (-26) and Johnson (-26).
— Saturday’s qualifying session was a disaster for many Chase drivers, including Denny Hamlin (38th), Harvick (39th), Logano (40th), Kyle Busch (41st) and Jeff Gordon (43rd). Fellow Chasers Kenseth and Keselowski will drop to the back of the field prior to the start because their cars needed repairs. That’s seven of 12 Chasers starting at the arise end of the field.
— By virtue of their earlier wins this round, Harvick and Logano are guaranteed to advance to the Eliminator Round. No one else is safe. Busch is 26 points ahead of ninth-place Kenseth, but should he get in a wreck and a bunch of drivers far back in points finish in the top 10, he could easily be knocked out.
— This will be the 890th and final race of Terry Labonte’s NASCAR Hall of Fame career.
— Six of the last nine races at Talladega were decided by a last-lap pass.
— On Lap 137 of the first Talladega race this year, there was a 14-car crash, one of four wrecks on the day. All told, nine of the current Chase drivers got involved in one crash or another. Earnhardt finished 26th in that race, while Carl Edwards, Logano, Kurt Busch, Kenseth, Keselowski and Gordon all finished 30th or worse.
— So what should fans expect to see on Sunday?
Early on, the drivers likely will be cautious, but by the final 50 laps some will become desperate, and that’s when the fireworks will start.
It ought to be one whale of an interesting show, and at the end of it we’ll know who the last eight men standing are in the championship hunt.