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.