Last Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway Brad Keselowski crossed the finish line first to become the first non-Chase contender to win a race during NASCAR’s postseason since Kasey Kahne won the penultimate race of 2011 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Because of the simple fact that anything can happen at Talladega Superspeedway it would not be too far outside the realm of possibility to see another non-Chase contender snatch the victory from the claws of one of the 13 Chase drivers in Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 500 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).
However, going based off past history the 13 drivers competing for the championship can’t be counted out either. Collectively, they have 18 wins at the 2.66-mile track. The top-five drivers in the standings all have visited Victory Lane there, with Jeff Gordon the leader among active drivers with six victories.
In last year’s Chase race, it looked like Tony Stewart would reach the finish line first, but a 25-car accident coming out of Turn 4 on the last lap changed the outcome with Matt Kenseth sneaking through the melee to claim his first win at Talladega. It was a wild finish that no one could’ve predicted. Except that it was Talladega and drivers have learned to expect the unexpected.
The same is true about the spring race earlier this year. Prior to the race, no one was even considering the possibility of a one-two finish by Front Row Motorsports drivers David Ragan and David Gilliland. But, a one-two finish with Gilliland providing an extra push for Ragan’s No. 34 Ford to cross the finish line first is exactly what fans got.
If Ragan pulls off the sweep this weekend, he’d be the seventh driver to sweep both races at Talladega during a season since the track opened in 1969 — Pete Hamilton (1970), Buddy Baker (1975), Darrell Waltrip (1982), Dale Earnhardt (1990 and 1999), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2002) and Gordon (2007) are the other six.
If Kenseth, who currently leads the standings by four points over Jimmie Johnson, finds Victory Lane this Sunday he’d be the fourth driver to win the fall Talladega race in back-to-back seasons. Dale Earnhardt did it three times (1983-84, 1990-91, 1999-2000), while Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2001-02) and Clint Bowyer (2010-11) accomplished the feat once.
The younger Earnhardt doesn’t take his success at Talladega lightly, and understands the unpredictability that comes with racing there.
“That track can be a bit of a lottery on how you finish and how that affects your points,” said Earnhardt Jr., who has won five times at the superspeedway including four straight from the fall 2001 race to the spring 2003 event. “I really like racing at Talladega, but how you finish there in the Chase, that track being a part of the Chase it’s really a guessing game on what’s going to happen to you there.”
The racing at Talladega makes great theater and keeps fans and drivers both on the edge of their seats, but one wrong move could end a driver’s or a couple of drivers’ shot at a championship in a matter of seconds.
“I’m sure from a fan standpoint it’s great to have that Wild Card race in there to shake things up, but just so much is out of your control there,” said Jimmie Johnson, who has won twice at Talladega, most recently in the spring 2008 race. “And that race you’d hate to see someone’s bad decision take out two or three Chase contenders and ruin their opportunity to win a championship.”
“You have to approach (Talladega) with the mindset that it’s like any other race,” added Greg Biffle, who is still searching for his first victory at the track. We’re going to race the race as best we can, make the right moves, be smart, you know, do everything we normally do and, you know, whatever comes out of it comes out of it. And that’s kind of all you can really do.”
Other Chase drivers who have won at Talladega include Kevin Harvick (one win), Kyle Busch (one) and Clint Bowyer (two), leaving Biffle, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne all searching for their first trip to the Alabama track’s Victory Lane.
Although the 13 Chase drivers are all hoping to leave Talladega without suffering any major setbacks in the standings with decent finishes they will still be gunning for the win at the end of the race. They must, however, never forget the spoilers, especially with the unpredictability of a place like Talladega.
“Talladega and Martinsville they keep me up at night,” Edwards said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen at those places. Those are the Wild Cards in the Chase.”
CAN SAUTER GET HOTTER?
With five races remaining in the 2013 season and 103 points behind leader Matt Crafton, Johnny Sauter’s chances at a championship this year are slim. That, however, shouldn’t slow him down from trying to finish the season in the same fashion he started it and carry his late-season success over into 2014.
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will be in Talladega this weekend for Saturday’s fred’s 250 Powered by Coca-Cola (4 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1), the second restrictor-plate race of the year. Sauter, who currently ranks eighth in the standings, started the 2013 season off with a bang by winning the season-opening restrictor-plate race at Daytona and then following that up with a win at Martinsville in the second race of the year. At Daytona, he held off a hard-charging Kyle Busch. He followed those victories up with fourth- and fifth-place finishes at Rockingham and Kansas. Since then, he’s cooled down a bit.
After the fourth race he gave up his spot atop the standings to Crafton, who has held it since. Sauter finished outside the top 10 in seven of the next 10 events dropping him from second to 10th in points twice (after Michigan and once again after Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) before rebounding with three consecutive top-10 finishes in the last three races.
This weekend, he will be looking for another strong finish at the 2.66-mile Alabama track. In four series starts, he’s never finished lower than 15th. His best finish came in this event last season where he finished second to first-time series winner Parker Kligerman. Sauter’s first three trips there resulted in finishes of 14th, third and 15th.