Talladega weekend preview: Earnhardt Jr. must win to keep championship hopes alive

RICHMOND, VA - APRIL 24:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Insurance Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 24, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images)

RICHMOND, VA – APRIL 24: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Insurance Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 24, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images)

Most drivers dread going to Talladega Superspeedway when they’re in need of a high finish. Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t most drivers.

Earnhardt heads to the 2.66-mile behemoth for Sunday’s CampingWorld.com 500 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup cutoff race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) in a win-or-go-home situation. Too far down in the standings to realistically advance on points (11th out of 12, 31 points below the cutoff), he has to visit Victory Lane to move on to the eight-driver Eliminator Round.

“I wouldn’t rather be going anywhere else than Talladega for the next race if we need a win,” the 12-time Most Popular Driver said. “That is a good opportunity for us. Even over Daytona, I think we can go to Talladega and do the job.”

Earnhardt ranks tied with Jeff Gordon for the active lead with six wins at the Alabama track, and has won two of the three restrictor-plate races this season, including the May contest at Talladega. In addition to his six victories, he owns 11 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in 31 starts at the superspeedway.

Earnhardt is chasing history on Sunday as well. A visit to Victory Lane would make him the first driver to win three restrictor-plate races since his father Dale Earnhardt in 1990.

“At Talladega, you give more mentally than you do physically,” Earnhardt said. “In a plate race, you need to make decisions with confidence and make them quickly. If you have any kind of hesitation, someone makes that decision for you and takes away that opportunity.

“We’re taking the same car we won with earlier this year, so it’s got great speed and we feel confident. It really helps when you have a great car.”

Jones and Crafton hope to avoid ‘Big One’ in championship hunt at ‘Dega

With five races to go in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season, one mistake can doom a driver’s championship hopes.

Matt Crafton (Getty Images)

Matt Crafton (Getty Images)

Erik Jones and Matt Crafton are both well aware of this. Jones leads Crafton by a mere four points in the series standings. Not far behind is third-place Tyler Reddick, who can take advantage of a Jones or Crafton slip-up to close his 16-point deficit in the standings.

The drivers continue their championship quests in Saturday’s fred’s 250 at Talladega Superspeedway (1 p.m. ET on FOX) where accidents are the norm, not an exception. A driver’s day can just as easily be ruined by the mistake of another driver as his own error at the 2.66-mile behemoth.

“You’re stuck, three-wide, even four-wide, and you can’t do anything about it,” said two-time defending NCWTS champion Crafton, describing the perils of Talladega. “Your fate is in everyone else’s hands and that’s a helpless feeling for a driver. It puts on a good show though.”

Jones explained his strategy is simply to avoid wrecks on Saturday — an undertaking easier said than done.

“The biggest thing we’ve done there in the past that has worked out well has just been staying on the bottom and staying out of trouble and trying to stay up front and stay out of trouble,” Jones said. “We did a good job last year of staying out of trouble and getting a top-10 finish out of it. Hopefully this year we can do the same.”

A winner of two NCWTS races this season, Jones just wants to survive Saturday and gain ground in the remaining four races if he has to.

“I feel like we can make up some more points at some other tracks rather than there, as long as we can just get through Talladega,” Jones said.

NASCAR Race Weekend Guide

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Race: CampingWorld.com 500
Track: Talladega Superspeedway
Date and Time: Sunday, Oct. 25 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Tune-in: NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
Distance: 500.08 miles (188 laps)
What to Watch For: Joey Logano, the only driver locked into the eight-competitor Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, goes for his third straight win. … Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. realistically must win at Talladega to advance to the Eliminator Round … Brad Keselowski attempts to defend his fall 2014 victory at Talladega. … The four drivers who are both winless and lowest in points in the Contender Round following Sunday’s race will be dropped from the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Race: fred’s 250 powered by Coca-Cola
Place: Talladega Superspeedway
Date and Time: Saturday, Oct. 24, 1 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, MRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
Distance: 250.04 miles (94 laps)
What to Watch For: Timothy Peters tries to win at Talladega for the second consecutive season. … Daytona winner Tyler Reddick attempts to sweep the NCWTS superspeedway races. … Brian Keselowski set to make NCWTS debut in the No. 29 Ford for brother Brad Keselowski’s racing team. … Erik Jones looks to maintain his four-point standings lead over Matt Crafton.

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