The one wild card in NASCAR’s 10-race Chase for the Championship is finally upon us, where the fate of the eventual Sprint Cup Champion is in the hands, or banking, of monstrous Talladega Superspeedway. The 2.66-mile beast of a track doesn’t play to the favorites; it’s an equal opportunity track that punishes — and rewards — everyone to the same hostile degree.
For the Chasers who will strategize to stay out of trouble, good luck! Talladega will find them when they least expect it and there‘s nothing they can do to prevent it. Drivers are at the mercy of restrictor plates, high speeds and a wide track that allows for drivers to go four wide with regularity. Because the drivers are so bunched up at such high speeds, the chain reaction of collisions that occur can wipe out dozens of cars at a time. For points leader Jimmie Johnson, avoiding “the big one” will be his main strategy, with a hope of simply finishing the race.
While Johnson plays the caution game, all the contenders behind him will try to utilize this wild-card opportunity to their advantage and position themselves for the final three races — tracks at which Johnson does very well. Should Johnson have the same fate he had in the April 25 Talladega race, we could conceivably see two drivers pass him in points. Johnson finished 31st in April while the two drivers currently closest behind him did very well — Harvick won and Hamlin finished fourth. Johnson gained only 75 points with the poor finish while Harvick took 190 for winning and Hamlin 165.
A look at the Chasers with four races to go and outlook for Sunday’s race:
1. Jimmie Johnson, points leader: He’s been able to bob-and-weave pretty well and avoid the wrath of Talladega while the Chase pressure has been on the last four years. His strategy has been to lay back for almost the entire race and then make a move with about 10 laps to go. It worked to perfection last season when he avoided “the big one” and finished sixth. Johnson’s troubles have come in the spring when he‘s been racing for the win. The last two spring races have seen him finish 31st and 30th, while he’s eased into sixth and ninth-place finishes with the pressure on in the fall.
2. Denny Hamlin, six points behind: He’ll be looking to mix in similarities from last year’s final five races, minus the 38th-place result from Talladega. He’s already won at Martinsville like he did in 2009 and if he can get by Talladega with a top-10 finish, he’ll be feeling pretty confident heading into a stretch run that saw him finish second, third and first in 2009’s final three starts. Those are numbers that Johnson may even have trouble keeping up with. Hamlin has said jokingly that he’s going to ride Johnson’s tail for the entire race today to ensure they have the same fate so he can get to those final three races close or ahead. It’s hard to see Hamlin taking that route, though, since he’s always been so competitive with the plates on. He’s led a lap in all nine of his Talladega starts and finished fourth in the spring. He’s got a big choice to make in how he approaches this race because he does have a car that could win. Does he play it cautious and stay close, or go for the home run with the high risk of falling further behind? Knowing Hamlin’s tendencies, he’ll be going for it all.
3. Kevin Harvick, 62 points behind: Everyone’s talking about this being a wild card with so much uncertainty, but for Harvick, this is the one race of the Chase he’s been looking forward to. He expects to do well on the basis of winning the last two plate races of the season. After opening up with a seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500, Harvick went on to win at Talladega and then the July Daytona race. There may be only one other car on the track that is dialed in like Harvick’s and he’s not a Chaser. Harvick’s hopes are that Hamlin does tail Johnson and that they both experience trouble in the back together or both finish in the teens. Should Harvick win this race, he would pass them both in points if they finished 12th or worse.
4. Kyle Busch, 172 points behind: While he proclaimed himself out of the Chase weeks ago, he’s right back in the mix, especially if he’s able to win or get a top-five finish and Harvick’s ideal scenario unfolds. The only difference is that he needs Harvick to find trouble as well. Busch has always run well in plate races, but his hard-nosed driving style has found him with more tricks than treats at Talladega. He won the 2008 spring race, but it remains his only top-five finish on the track despite leading a lap in his last six starts there. He’ll need a few crazy circumstances to occur, but he couldn’t ask for a better track to have it all become a reality.
Chasers who won’t win the title, but could win this Sunday:
Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer will each compete for the win this week because they have the same engines as the two drivers who have won the three plate races this season. The ECR engine program supplies engines for all the Childress and Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing cars. Burton led the most laps in April’s race and will be using the same car he finished fourth with at Daytona in July. Bowyer is also using his Daytona car, which finished seventh.
Kurt Busch is easily the best plate racer to have never won a plate race. At Talladega, he has an amazing 12.8 average finish over his 19 starts that included four third-place finishes. At Daytona, he has eight top five finishes. This week he’ll be using his eighth-place Talladega chassis from April that led four separate times.
Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon have been very accomplished plate racers over their career, but their plate programs have stumbled a little this year. Stewart finally won at Talladega in 2008 after a succession of runner-ups while Gordon is a six-time winner with the last coming in 2007.
Top drivers outside the Chase that can win Sunday:
Jamie McMurray has the disadvantage of not being able to race his winning Daytona 500 chassis because it’s on display at the Daytona USA Museum, but that didn’t stop him from nearly winning in another car the last time he visited Talladega. He got beat on the final turn of the last lap by Harvick, losing by a nose at the finish line. He’ll use that same car this week and is one of the lucky drivers to have the powerful ECR engines under his hood.
Juan Pablo Montoya also has the luxury of having the ECR engine which propelled him to third place behind his teammate in April. It took him a while to get used to drafting in stock cars, but he’s quite accomplished now and should be considered one of the favorites to win.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the master of Talladega from 2001-2004, having won five times with two other runner-up finishes. He’s still been good, but hasn’t won since. He should be a contender this week and will be using the same car that finished runner-up in the Daytona 500.
A nice long shot to look this week is David Ragan, the “other” driver at Roush-Fenway Racing. Talladega has been the site of his best combined racing performances with a 13.3 average finish in seven races. While it wasn’t his best career finish there, his sixth-place run in April may have been his best chance at winning.
Don’t Pay Too Much Attention To Restrictor Plate Practices
I rarely pay attention to practices from the restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega because they are misleading and very rarely help in any equation to determine who will do well in the actual race like they do at all the other tracks. The wide variation in practice speeds because of the draft is why the info is useless.
The main data I rely on is past history and how well each driver did in this season’s plate races. I like to look deeper into each race and see who ran well even if the results don’t show it. Wrecks play a huge factor in so many of these races, so dismissing a driver because he finished 25th or worse in the other plate races isn’t wise because it doesn’t always tell the whole story.
Roberts Weekly Driver Ratings
Each week I will provide an analysis of my top rated drivers on how well they will do in the race based on the following criteria:
• Practice sessions leading up to the weekend’s Sprint Cup race
• Chassis information on what was brought to each track by each team, good or bad
• Driver tendencies at certain tracks
• Recent and overall histories for each driver at each track
• Decipher poor past results with what really happened, good car — or bad luck?
These final ratings should help assist in final betting strategies with the Las Vegas books or match-up and prop plays, as well as help in NASCAR fantasy leagues.
Micah Roberts Top 10 Driver Ratings
Amp Energy Juice 500
Sunday, October 31, 2010 – 10:16 am (PDT)
Rating Driver Odds Practice 1 Practice 2 Qualifying April 25*
1. Kevin Harvick 5/1 31st DNP 14th 1st
Won two of the three plates races this season; using same car that won in April.
2. Jamie McMurray 8/1 3rd DNP 12th 2nd
Won this race in 2009 and Daytona 500 this year; using runner-up chassis from April.
3. Jeff Burton 20/1 22nd 2nd 5th 32nd
Led the most laps in April race; using the same chassis that finished sixth at Daytona in July.
4. Juan Pablo Montoya 18/1 36th DNP 1st 3rd
Career-best of second place in 2008; using same ECR engine as Harvick and McMurray.
5. Denny Hamlin 25/1 1st 4th 17th 4th
Has led a lap in all nine career starts; using chassis that started last three at Talladega.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 10/1 10th 6th 6th 13th
Five wins with the last coming in 2004; using runner-up chassis from the Daytona 500.
7. Clint Bowyer 20/1 16th DNP 2nd 7th
Using the powerful ECR engine inside his fourth-place Daytona 500 chassis this week.
8. Kyle Busch 8/1 2nd 15th 32nd 9th
Won in spring of 2008 for his only top-five finish on the track; has led a lap in last six starts.
9. Kurt Busch 12/1 30th 3rd 3rd 8th
Average finish of 12.8 in 19 starts, including third-place four times; using same car from April.
10. Mark Martin 30/1 9th 1st 30th 5th
Making 46th career start on track with two wins, the last coming in 1997; using new chassis this week.
* Results from the Talladega Aaron’s 499.
Note: Talladega is one of two tracks that require teams the use restrictor plates, accounting for four races on the 36-race schedule. This is an impound race with only two scheduled practices. Many teams chose not to run the final practice.
Odds courtesy of the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book.
Micah Roberts, a former race and sports book director, has been setting NASCAR lines in Las Vegas since 1995. He writes for multiple publications covering all sports. He can be reached at MM.Roberts7@gmail.com.
JIMMIE JOHNSON ON STRATEGY AT TALLADEGA, LAY BACK OR RUN UP FRONT: “We’ve tried both approaches and the last three years we’ve made it through there (the big crash) without any big trouble. I can remember Bobby Labonte at the front of the pack racing Talladega one time and he gets flipped over and ends up landing on Tony Stewart, who is trying to ride at the back to be smart for points. So there is no safe place. We see a lot of teams trying to be conservative and smart and get to the end of the race and go from there and the problem we have now is when everybody decides with 20 (laps) to go, that it’s time to race, you have to race. You need the best finish you can get and that’s where the crashes are. So I think we all feel better if we go 480 miles and then get crashed. It really sucks to crash at five miles into the race or something. I think that’s what we’ve done over the years is there’s no need to push the envelope now if something weird went on, we could miss that. But at the end you’ve got to pull (the belts) tight and drive through there and try to get the best finish you can.”
KYLE BUSCH ON WHAT HE LIKES TO DO WITH FIVE LAPS REMAINING AT TALLADEGA: “You just want to be leading and protect what you’ve got and try to keep the rest of the guys behind you. You know it’s going to be tough. You know it’s going to be crazy and guys are going to try to go three-wide, four-wide and everywhere trying to get a push-draft going and everything. If you were leading and you had a teammate behind you or something like that, obviously that would make it pretty good.”
KYLE BUSCH ON MEMORIES OF TRICK-OR-TREATING WHILE GROWING UP IN LAS VEGAS: “It was always cold in Las Vegas during Halloween, even though it can be really hot most of the year. I guess the biggest memory was going out to everyone’s house and trick-or-treating and hanging out with friends as a group. Sometimes, people wouldn’t be home, so they had a bucket out and you would reach in and grab whatever you wanted out of the bucket. It was all about how much candy you could collect, not necessarily about how much you would eat when you got home.”
KEVIN HARVICK ON TALLADEGA BEING A CRAP SHOOT AND MAYBE HAVING AN ADVANTAGE: “I’ll take the odds. If it all ended at Talladega and we were behind, I’ll take the odds. We’ve been really good on those race tracks this year. I feel like we’ve had good strategies, done the things that we have needed to do, and had fast cars. So, in the end, fast cars are what it takes to even have a shot at winning a race. You have to have a car that is capable of doing that. I like the plate races. I enjoy them. We’ll go and race just like we have, and, hopefully, come out with a similar outcome.”
JEFF BURTON ON WHAT’S IT’S LIKE RUNNING AT TALLADEGA: “I’m always nervous to run at Talladega. You have to go into that race thinking that there is going to be a multicar incident and how to miss it. To me, it’s a stressful Sunday morning and once the race gets going, I calm down. But, as the laps start winding down, the intensity level just goes through the roof. It’s unbelievable how you can feel it there more than any other racetrack. At every other racetrack, if you’re racing for the lead you might be racing with maybe two or three other guys. At Talladega, you’re contending with 30 drivers. When the intensity level increases for 30 people versus three, it changes the way you race.”
TALLADEGA ODDS & ENDS: AMP ENERGY JUICE 500
compiled by Mike Forde
NASCAR Media Services
· Construction began on what was then known as the Alabama International Motor Speedway on May 23, 1968.
· The first NASCAR Sprint Cup race was held on Sept. 14, 1969.
· The name changed to Talladega Superspeedway in 1989.
· Fourth repaving completed on Sept. 19, 2006.
· There have been 82 NASCAR Sprint Cup races since the track opened in 1969; two a year every year except the inaugural season, which had just one.
· Richard Brickhouse won the first NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
· Bobby Isaac won the first NASCAR Sprint Cup pole in September 1969. Isaac won the first three poles there.
· 35 different drivers have won poles.
· Bill Elliott leads all drivers with eight poles.
· 40 different drivers have posted victories, led by Dale Earnhardt Sr. (10); 18 drivers have won more than once. Kevin Harvick won his first Talladega race this past April.
· Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers in victories, with six.
· Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing each have 10 wins, more than any other organization.
· 31 of 81 races have been won from a top-two starting position, including 13 from the pole; 23 have been won from a starting position outside the top 10. The most recent driver to win from the pole was Jeff Gordon in 2007 (spring).
· The furthest back in the field a race winner started was 36th, by Jeff Gordon in 2000.
· Mark Martin’s pace in the 1997 spring race set an all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup record for the fastest race ever. He won the caution-free race with an average speed of 188.354 mph and covered the 500-mile distance in two hours, 39 minutes and 18 seconds.
· Dale Earnhardt Jr. had four consecutive victories (October 2001 through April 2003), the most ever by a driver there. Buddy Baker (three – May 1975 through May 1976) is the only other driver to win more than two consecutive races there.
· Since the inception of electronic scoring in 1993, every race that has ended under green has had a margin of victory under half a second. In April, the MOV was 0.011 seconds, the second-closest margin at Talladega.
NASCAR In Alabama
· There have been 101 NASCAR Sprint Cup races in Alabama.
· 65 drivers in NASCAR’s three national series (all-time) have their home state recorded as Alabama.
· There have been seven race winners from Alabama in NASCAR’s three national series:
Talladega Superspeedway Data
Race #: 33 of 36 (10-31-10)
Track Size: 2.66 miles
· Banking/Corners: 33 degrees
· Banking/Frontstretch: 16.5 degrees
· Banking/Backstretch: 2 degrees
· Frontstretch: 4,300 feet
· Backstretch: 4,000 feet
Driver Rating at Talladega
Denny Hamlin 95.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 93.3
David Ragan 92.5
Tony Stewart 89.0
Jeff Burton 87.1
Jeff Gordon 86.0
Joey Logano 85.3
Kurt Busch 85.0
Jamie McMurray 84.4
Jimmie Johnson 83.6
Note: Driver Rating compiled from 2005-2010 races (11 total) at Talladega.
2009 pole winner: None (weather)
2009 race winner: Jamie McMurray, 157.213 mph, 11-1-09)
Track qualifying record: Bill Elliott (212.809 mph, 44.998 seconds, 4-30-87)
Track race record: Mark Martin (188.354 mph, 5-10-97)
Estimated Pit Window: Every 34-36 laps, based on fuel mileage
LAS VEGAS HILTON NASCAR ODDS TO WIN
AMP ENERGY JUICE 500
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 31, 2010
JIMMIE JOHNSON 25
KYLE BUSCH 8
JEFF GORDON 12
DENNY HAMLIN 25
JEFF BURTON 20
KEVIN HARVICK 5
MATT KENSETH 30
CARL EDWARDS 18
GREG BIFFLE 25
KURT BUSCH 12
MARK MARTIN 30
TONY STEWART 8
CLINT BOWYER 20
JUAN MONTOYA 18
KASEY KAHNE 30
JOEY LOGANO 30
RYAN NEWMAN 30
MARTIN TRUEX JR 50
JAMIE McMURRAY 8
DALE EARNHARDT JR 10
BRAD KESELOWSKI 50
DAVID REUTIMANN 50
ARIC ALMIROLA 75
DAVID RAGAN 30
AJ ALLMENDINGER 50
MARCOS AMBROSE 100
SAM HORNISH JR 100
ELLIOTT SADLER 60
REGAN SMITH 100
PAUL MENARD 60
SCOTT SPEED 200
BOBBY LABONTE 100
TRAVIS KVAPIL 200