Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Talladega Storylines

Count Jimmie Johnson in. No wait. He’s out. No, in.

The weekly Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup pendulum swings toward the “out” segment of popular opinion, as Johnson’s accident-induced 34th-place finish at Charlotte dropped him to eighth in the standings, 35 points behind leader Carl Edwards. That’s a hefty deficit, especially considering the stout list of drivers between Johnson and the points lead.

But here’s some good news for the five-time defending champion: half the Chase remains, and Talladega waits on deck. Talladega, often labeled the wild-card track of the Chase, could shake up the standings once again – a perfect opportunity for Johnson to wipe away Edwards’ robust cushion. He’ll have that opportunity on Sunday, in the Good Sam Club 500.

Elliott Sadler continues to slowly chip away at NASCAR Nationwide Series points leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s lead, now down to just 15 points with three races remaining. The two frontrunners face two open weeks before the next race, at Texas Motor Speedway.

A familiar face has launched up the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series standings: Four-time series champion Ron Hornaday Jr. Hornaday won his second consecutive race, closing to within 21 points of leader Austin Dillon. He’ll look to further knife into the deficit this weekend at Talladega, in the Coca-Cola 250 powered by fred’s on Saturday.


Streak Stopper: Johnson’s Title Hopes Take Hit
Jimmie Johnson’s 34th-place finish at Charlotte put a sixth-consecutive title in serious jeopardy. He now sits eighth in the standings, 35 points behind lead Carl Edwards.

Reason to be pessimistic: Those in front of him seemingly refuse to finish outside the top 10. Edwards has top-10 finishes in all five races, the only drive to do so. And second- and third-place Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth have each finished in the top 10 in four of the five Chase races. Johnson will need poor finishes from each to climb back into the hunt.

Reasons to be optimistic: The 35-point deficit roughly translates to a 145-point deficit in the points format from years past. In 2006, Johnson made up a 146-point deficit with five races remaining to win his first championship. In 2007, he ripped off a string of four consecutive victories with five races to go. He knows how succeed when faced with adversity.

And this: Johnson’s famous luck has evaporated. He owns the top Driver Rating (114.2) and best Average Running Position (6.5) in the first five Chase races, yet just the eighth-best average finish.

Five Down, Five To Go
Last Saturday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway marked the midpoint in the 2011 Chase. Here are some of the lessons learned through the first half…

Carl Edwards is for real: Edwards’ worst finish over the first five races was eighth at New Hampshire. Otherwise, he has performed superbly, boasting an average finish of 4.6 in the Chase. One glaring hole: No wins.

Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch navigate trouble spots: Prior to the Chase opener at Chicagoland, Harvick said he wanted to get through the first five races unscathed. Busch had hoped to evade his personal gauntlet of New Hampshire and Dover. Both got their wish, and are very much in the championship hunt. Harvick is second, only five points behind Edwards. Busch is fourth, 18 points out.

Don’t forget, Kenseth is a champion: With Tony Stewart opening the Chase with two consecutive victories, Jimmie Johnson see-sawing his way through the first five and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards vaulting to the points lead, 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup series champion Matt Kenseth has gone largely unnoticed – until Saturday night. Kenseth’s victory moved him to third, seven points behind Edwards.

Big Guns Have Rough Starts: Though not mathematically eliminated by any means, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin have a steep hill to climb. All are at least 60 points out of the points lead, and have combined for just two top fives in the first five races.

Talladega Is Junior Country
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s winless drought has reached 124 races, but when Talladega rolls around, none of that matters.

Earnhardt is always a threat at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ biggest track. He has led laps in each of the last 11 Talladega races, and better yet, owns a series-best Driver Rating of 92.7 there.

Heavyweight Bout: Richard Childress vs. Rick Hendrick
Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress, NASCAR Hall of Fame nominees both, each boast 11 wins at Talladega, most all-time among owners.

Both are also chasing a major milestone. Hendrick Motorsports’ next win will be its 200th. Richard Childress Racing’s next victory will be No. 100. Considering that the two powerhouse teams have combined to win each of the last three Talladega races, one of those milestones could be reached this Sunday.

Talladega’s Odds-On Favorite: The Field
Tight finishes and lead changes, that’s what Talladega does.

Last April, Talladega tied two records. One was for the closest margin of victory since the inception of electronic scoring in 1993. Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer to the finish line by .002 seconds.

The second was number of lead changes, 88. That tied a record also set at Talladega, prompting a rather unique bonus program for Sunday. If there are 100 or more lead changes in Sunday’s event, the driver who takes the lead the most times will win $100,000. Expect the intensity to be ratcheted up.

Also, a few rule changes to watch…

The size of the restrictor plate that teams will use to prepare and practice for the race will increase by 1/64 inch and is now going to be 57/64-inch diameter. This will provide the teams with an additional 7-10 horsepower.

Additionally, the pressure relief valve on the cars' cooling system will be re-calibrated to reduce the pressure by approximately 8 pounds per square inch from this past April's race at Talladega.

Said NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton when the rules changes were announced last month, "After the last few superspeedway races, we've heard many drivers express their desire to open up the size of the restrictor plate some and we thought the time was right to do that. We anticipate these revisions in the rules package for Talladega will help continue to provide competitive and exciting racing for the fans."

- NASCAR Media Services

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