|Wild crap shoot expected Sunday at Talladega|
We haven't seen Junior win at Talladega since 2004, but on the basis of his Daytona 500 win in February -- one of four races on the season using restrictor-plates -- there's a pretty good indication that he'll be strong on Sunday and deserves to be the favorite this week. He's almost at a win-or-go-home stage, and between his spotter and crew chief he'll receive updates throughout the race of where he stands and what he needs to do to advance to the next stage. Not many are better at reading the air in the draft than Junior. Because of the fan admiration being stronger at Talladega than any other track, it's almost like a home game for Junior this week.
Having Talladega as the transfer race is kind of cruel punishment for all the quality drivers on the outside of the Chase looking in. Because of the track's volatile nature, and because up to 38 drivers will have a legitimate shot at winning, some of the elite programs in the Sprint Cup series are in serious jeopardy of seeing their seasons end on Sunday should they fail to win. If we were at Texas or Phoenix, maybe 18 drivers would have chance to win. At Talladega, there's a much broader pool of quality candidates. This is why the SuperBook doesn't have any driver lower than 10-to-1, but also has 2013 Talladega winner David Ragan at 50-to-1 when he's normally 500-to-1.
Here's a look at the top candidates to win this week:
Matt Kenseth 12-1: He won the 2012 Talladega race and also has two Daytona 500 wins under his belt. He led the most laps between the four plate races last season and drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, which has shown to have a little edge among all the cars when restrictor plates are on.
Denny Hamlin 12-1: He falls right in line with his JGR teammate Kenseth. The dude flat out dominated during Daytona speed weeks and won his first career plate race at Talladega in May. His strategy for the race is to play it safe, at least until the big one occurs and he's automatically in. Even though he has the ability and car to lead the most laps and stay out front, expect him to be extremely cautious.
Jimmie Johnson 12-1: He's tied with Junior for the least amount of points among the 12 Chase drivers, and he'll probably need to win to get in. He's a two-time Talladega winner, but both came in the spring. In the fall races over his career, he's never had to try and win, instead using a strategy to point race and get out of town without damaging his car or hurting his championship chances.
Jeff Gordon 12-1: No driver has more plate wins than Gordon, and no active driver has more Talladega wins than Gordon's six. His last win there came in 2007 when he swept the season. All he has to do is finish 16th or better and he advances. Look for him to play it slow and wait for the desperate to wreck out until he tries to put on his moves to win.
Kevin Harvick 12-1: Does he really care about this race? He's already in the next round on the basis of his win at Charlotte this week. He has nothing to gain this week, so he could tank it, or he could go all out and try to grab his second Talladega win with nothing to lose.
Brad Keselowski 12-1: If there's one camp that would vote for things to go back to the way they used to be instead of this elimination process of the new Chase format, it would be Keselowski's. They've dominated almost the entire year with five wins, but the 2012 champ is on the verge of being ousted if he doesn't run extremely well on Sunday. He's won at Talladega twice over his career, including his first career Cup win in 2009 while driving for an under-funded James Finch team.
Jamie McMurray 20-1: He won this race last season and he also won in 2009 driving for Roush Fenway Racing. Restrictor plate racing has suited him better than most, and he is probably the most live underdog to win at 20-to-1 odds or higher.
Greg Biffle 25-1: He led the most laps at Talladega in the spring and should be considered a spoiler to the party along with McMurray as drivers not in the Chase that can have a real impact on the championship.
David Ragan 50-1: Two career wins and they both came on restrictor-plate tracks. He won at Talladega last spring and has finished seventh or better in four of his last five starts there. In fact, both he and his teammate finished 1-2 at Talladega last spring which is the ultimate indicator that anyone can win this race.
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