CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The score is tied 3-3 between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in the race for hottest driver in NASCAR. Each has won three races in a row and has been nearly unbeatable through the first nine races of the season.
Up next, though, is Talladega Superspeedway, a wild-card race track that could even the field.
It means Jimmie Johnson, mired in a 32-race losing streak, has a chance to snap the longest winless streak of his career.
Or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. could defend last year’s Talladega victory, the first Cup win of his career.
Austin Dillon won the season-opening Daytona 500, and he’s got as good a chance as anyone to win Sunday.
Same goes for Brad Keselowski, considered by most of his peers the best restrictor-plate racer in the field right now.
Las Vegas’ Busch goes to Alabama as the hottest driver in the series and the Cup Series points leader. He’s won the last three races — at Texas, Bristol Motor Speedway and Richmond — and has three runner-up finishes through nine races.
“Pretty cool to win three in a row,” Busch said after Saturday night’s victory at Richmond. “Next week we go to Talladega. I think it’s easier to win the Powerball than win at Talladega. We’ll give it a go anyway, see what we get.”
Talladega should be a crapshoot with zero guarantees. It was the Team Penske trio of Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney that led Speedweeks in Daytona and cemented themselves as the favorites for the 500. But Keselowski was wrecked out of the race, Blaney was lost in traffic after leading a race-high 118 laps and Logano led the Penske charge with a disappointing fourth-place finish.
With the Penske cars out of contention, the closing laps belonged to resurgent Stewart-Haas Racing. Both Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola had a shot to win the Daytona 500 in overtime and both were wrecked — Almirola by Dillon as they raced for the checkered flag.
Dillon led just one lap, the final one, to earn his Daytona 500 victory.
Because Daytona and Talladega are so similar in speed, style and the way the field races in a pack, the dominance shown so far this season by Busch and Harvick may not matter. With 16 spots up for grabs in the playoffs, this is a race where a driver can steal a postseason berth. Only five drivers have qualified for the playoffs through nine races: Harvick and Busch, then Dillon for his Daytona victory, defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. for his win in California and Clint Bowyer for his Martinsville Speedway victory.
Stenhouse, winner at Talladega last spring and Daytona in July, doesn’t mind the dominance shown so far by Busch and Harvick because it opens up playoff chances at other circuits.
“(The) less people win and the more opportunity for somebody like us to get in (to the playoffs) on points if we need to,” Stenhouse said. “It doesn’t really bother me that a couple people are winning most of the races. Those two are definitely by far the fastest cars out there right now.”
Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR champion, has not had one of the fastest cars this year and had a disastrous Speedweeks at Daytona. He crashed in every event and has yet to lead a single lap all year. He’s a two-time winner at Talladega and has every reason to believe he can be in the mix Sunday.
But like his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, he’s working with a new Camaro that has yet to show much muscle on the track. Dillon’s victory in the 500 is the only win this season for the new Chevrolet model, and Kyle Larson in 10th is the highest-ranked Chevy driver.
If there’s a chance to put an end to Busch and Harvick’s mastery so far this season, it comes Sunday with a wide-open opportunity for another driver to get to victory lane.