Every driver competing for this year’s Sprint Cup Series championship has labeled this weekend’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway as the “wild card” race in the Chase.
That is for good reason.
Superspeedway races at Talladega and Daytona can produce wild racing with even wilder endings and always with the possibility of large, multi-car wrecks.
For instance, Jimmie Johnson — who has won five Cup titles and is five-points out of the lead this year — has yet to finish a restrictor-plate race this season.
“I just don’t think we’ll really have a good idea of how things shape up until we leave Talladega; too much can change,” Johnson said.
While that is a possibility, there are some drivers in this year’s Chase who are likely looking forward to the Talladega event.
The series points leader, Brad Keselowski, is one. He won his first career Cup race at Talladega, while driving a partial schedule for owner James Finch in 2009, and won the spring race at the track this season.
In seven career races at Talladega, Keselowski has been involved in wrecks twice. In the other five races, he has finished 10th or better.
“I really respect the challenge that Talladega is mentally. But I certainly loathe the lack of ability to fully determine the outcome of your day,” Keselowski said.
“It’s a bit of a love-hate relationship but the mental challenge I really enjoy.”
Clint Bowyer, who is 25 points back at fourth in points and well within striking distance of Keselowski, has two career wins at Talladega, including a victory in this race last year.
Yet, even his success on the track leaves him with mixed emotions.
“Things are so tight right now and the competition is so close it’s literally a point or two here and a point or two there — that’s shaking up the Chase right now,” he said.
“That race can shake things up in a big way. It can propel you to the lead or bury you. It’s one of those races that I kind of look forward to. I’ve won a couple times there and enjoy it, but I also know what can happen there.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., seventh in points and in need of a good performance to gain some ground on the drivers ahead of him in the standings, has had plenty of success at Talladega.
Earnhardt owns five victories at the track, but his last win came in 2004. He was ninth in the spring race, part of two top-10 finishes in his past three races there.
While Earnhardt has finished eighth, 13th and 11th in the first three Chase races, he and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team know the performance will have to pick up to win the championship.
“Well, I mean it’s simple,” said Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte. “Eleventh isn’t too bad if you want to run seventh in points.
“But if you want to try to win the championship or be in the top-five in points you are going to have to win races and run in the top-five.”
Kevin Harvick, ninth in points, is looking for his first win of the season and a victory this weekend would help jump-start his Chase campaign.
Harvick has one win at the track, which cam in 2010, but has been involved in wrecks in his past two races.