Talladega can be one ‘big’ bummer
by Joe Medley
Oct 06, 2012 | 13273 views |  0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson talk on Friday at Talladega Superspeedway. Both are hoping for good luck on Talladega’s fickle 2.66-mile tri-oval.
Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson talk on Friday at Talladega Superspeedway. Both are hoping for good luck on Talladega’s fickle 2.66-mile tri-oval.
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TALLADEGA — Jimmie Johnson has shown that disaster at Talladega doesn’t mean the end of a run in the NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup.

Then again, that’s Jimmie Johnson, the guy who won five consecutive Chase titles, starting with his amazing rally in 2006.

It doesn’t work out so well for others who crash in Talladega’s annual Chase race, and that’s why all 12 drivers involved in this year’s NASCAR playoff come into Sunday’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 excited and anxious about the possibilities.

“We could leave here with a bigger points lead,” said Chase leader Brad Keselowski, five points ahead of Johnson. “We could leave here losing it and being quite a few markers back, so I have an open mind about how it can go.

“But I’m just going to focus on controlling what I can control.”

Talladega’s history of pack racing with chain-reaction, “Big One” crashes shows how little drivers can control on NASCAR’s fastest track. Those who don’t finish Talladega’s

annual Chase race running tend not to win the Chase.

Since NASCAR went to the Chase format in 2004, Johnson is the only driver to do it.

Three weeks after starting the 2006 Chase with a 39th-place finish at Loudon, he crashed at Talladega and finished 24th. With two bad finishes in the first four Chase races, he had to rally from 156 points down.

He did it and won the first of his five consecutive Chase titles, but he needed an average finish of third over the final six Chase races to do it. He won one of those races and finished second four times.

That’s what it takes to recover from getting caught in a Talladega “Big One” in the track’s fall race, which falls during the Chase, NASCAR’s playoff for the top 12 drivers in points with 10 races to go.

Take it from Jeff Gordon, who finished 36th in 2006 and 38th in 2008. Both times, crashes finished his day.

He finished sixth in the 2006 Chase and seventh in 2008.

Both years, he had other bad finishes in Chase races, but he said the wrecks at Talladega were “devastating.”

He’s had company in Talladega misery. In the 2008 fall race alone, crashes ended the day of six Chase drivers, Besides Gordon, Greg Biffle finished 24th, Matt Kenseth 26th, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 28th, Carl Edwards 29th and Denny Hamlin 39th.

Crashes in 2009 ended the day for Mark Martin (28th), Kurt Busch (30th), Tony Stewart (35th) and Ryan Newman (36th).

None went on to win the Chase, so a Talladega “Big One” can deal a serious blow to a driver’s Chase run.

Then again, a crash can help other Chase drivers climb back into the race.

“This can be a game changer,” said Clint Bowyer, who enters the weekend fourth in the Chase, 25 points behind Keselowski. “That is one of the tracks that can separate somebody and possibly win you a championship.

“It seems like each and every week these first few (races), it’s just been a point or two here, a point or two there. This is one that can swing 20, 30 points and take you out of the running or push you into it.”

Gordon is counting on it. He enters Sunday’s race 10th, 48 points behind Keselowski, and says he can’t play it safe. He’s going for a strong finish and needs the “Big One” to shake up the field in his favor.

“That’s the difference between where I am in points and where the guys in the top five are in points,” he said. “They’re sitting there saying, ‘OK, we can’t afford to get caught up in the ‘Big One,’ and I’m sitting there going, ‘I can’t afford to not be leading laps and running up front and not win this race.’

“We’ve been saying from the beginning, right after Chicago, when we had our troubles, that we’ve got to put solid finishes together --- you know, go for wins --- and we’re going to need a little bit of help from other guys having issues.”

Of course, getting caught up in a wreck Sunday would deal a “devastating” blow to Gordon’s chances with seven Chase races left.

It’s all part of why drivers refer to Talladega’s Chase race as a “wild card.”

“I heard NASCAR was considering dropping that track from the Chase,” Johnson joked earlier this week. “I’m thrilled about Talladega being off the schedule or the points not counting. How about that? That would be good.”

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