There are certain things that we’ve come to expect from restrictor-plate races lately, and this weekend’s Nextel Cup race at Talladega had most of the bases covered. Side-by-side racing… check. Bump-drafting… check. The Big One… check. Controversy… check. Upset fans… check.
It seems like the only checkmark left empty on a wild day in Alabama was the one on the ballot next to “points leader emerged unscathed in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.”
Other than Jeff Gordon‘s early exit, the Chase picture wasn’t altered much until the final 10 laps of the race. That’s when all heck broke loose: Jeff Burton had to pit under green with a flat tire, then Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. became involved in their infamous last-lap crash. In those final 30 miles of racing, the entire points picture changed: Burton went from widening his points lead even more to having it cut down to only six, as by the end of the day, everyone but Gordon had gained on him. A race that had produced clear championship favorites the past two seasons now found itself responsible for tightening the points race.
So, now that the Talladega storm has passed, who’s withstood the pressure and pushed forward in the heat of the battle, and who’s been left out in the cold? Read this week’s Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in the Chase to find out.
Burton: Despite finishing a disappointing 27th at Talladega, Burton is still one of only two drivers to have top 10s in three of the four Chase races so far. If the flat tire was avoided, he would have an 80-plus point lead on second place; as things turned out, it’s now just a mere six points over Matt Kenseth. But Burton’s still in first, and that’s what matters: heading into Charlotte, where he has two wins and just two finishes outside the top 25 since 1999, he looks ready and able to maintain his points lead.
Kenseth: Kenseth is the second driver in the Chase to post a top 10 in three of the four races. His fourth-place finish at Talladega helped him rebound from a tough week at Kansas, where he finished 23rd. Now back up to second place in the standings, Kenseth returns to a track where he was fifth in the Coca-Cola 600 this spring. The key to doing better this time around will be to keep from testing the limits on his gas tank. He ran out at Dover and it cost him eight spots, then did it again at Talladega and was lucky to make it to the pits OK; if the team keeps gambling like that, they’re going to get bit.
Mark Martin: Well, so much for Martin being able to predict the outcome of a race. He was certain he would wreck at Talladega this weekend, but at the end of 500 miles, his car was not just in one piece but up front, finishing in eighth place. So far in the Chase, Martin’s worst finish is 14th, those solid runs putting him third in the standings and only 10 points out of the lead. Looking ahead, Martin has two straight top fives at Lowe’s and 10 top 10s in the last 17 races there, so the future looks far more optimistic than it did before Talladega. Maybe he should predict another wreck this Saturday night, though; that seemed to work out OK for him.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick’s team showed some championship resiliency in Sunday’s race at Talladega. After getting caught up in the Big One on lap 139, the No. 29 bunch made the minor repairs needed to keep Harvick a contender. By the end of the day, Harvick had worked his way back up to sixth place, an impressive run considering what could have happened. The finish put him back up to fourth in the standings and cut his deficit to Burton by over 60 points, from 96 to 33. That could turn out to be key, as the team now heads to a track where the No. 29 hasn’t run all that well lately. It’s been five races since Harvick has snatched a top 10 at Lowe’s, including a mechanical problem in the spring that robbed them of a prime opportunity to end that streak.
Denny Hamlin: Brian Vickers and Johnson weren’t the only teammates to get tangled up on Sunday. Hamlin was involved in two incidents: the Big One at lap 139 and a five-car wreck on lap 173 that included both of this JGR teammates. The final accident ended any charge Hamlin may have tried to mount, and he finished the day 21st, dropping him back three places in the standings. But he still gained a few points on Burton, now 51 out of the lead, and should have a better go of things this Saturday night. Finishing in the top 10 in both of his starts at Lowe’s, look for this rookie to stay with the big boys ahead of him in the Chase standings and maybe even catch a few off guard.
Johnson: Sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug; in Johnson’s case, on Sunday he was the latter. Perhaps it was bad karma from the spring race that came back to bite the No. 48 team, but whatever it was, the resulting 24th-place finish didn’t do much to help Johnson get back into the race for the championship.
Sitting 156 points behind Burton, the only bright spot right now for Johnson is the fact that a trip to Lowe’s is next on the schedule. It’s a track where Johnson has been dominant, to say the least: In 10 starts, he’s gathered up an astounding nine top 10s to go along with five wins. Those stats need to be padded this weekend, for if Johnson can’t heat up and start gaining some ground, his chances for the title go from slim to none.
Earnhardt Jr.: I’ll give Junior credit for keeping a smile on his face following Sunday’s turn of events in the final lap at Talladega. Instead of pulling in a sure top-five finish, Junior was listed as 23rd when the official standings came out due to his late-race contact with Johnson. The hit he took in the car wasn’t the one that hurt the most; it was the chance he squandered to make a big move in the standings. Instead of being in position to lead the points, Junior now has a 106-point gap between himself and Burton with just six races left. The No. 8 team has run well in the Chase so far, but Junior has only one top 10 to show for their efforts, and he may be hard pressed to get number two this weekend. At Lowe’s, he has finishes of 33rd or worse in two of this last three starts.
Gordon: For the second straight week in the Chase, Gordon posted up a DNF, leaving his total in that dubious category at six for the year. This week, the culprit wasn’t a broken part; instead, it was a bent-up racecar from being an innocent victim in the multi-car crash on lap 139. His 36th-place finish made him the only driver to lose points to Burton on Sunday, and leaves Gordon 147 behind the leader with six to go. As a result, Gordon says he thinks his Drive for Five may be over with, and looking at his record at Lowe’s lately that might be true. In the past three races, he has finished no better than 30th, so it will definitely take some good luck for the No. 24 team to heat back up into contention.
Kasey Kahne: With a second-place finish at Talladega combined with bad luck for Burton, Kahne’s Chase hopes went from no chance in hell to well… maybe this weekend. Kahne chipped away almost 90 points out of his deficit to Burton with his best career restrictor-plate finish, his first top 10 in the four races of this Chase. Up and down all season long, perhaps Talladega is the spark the No. 9 group needed to turn them in the right direction for good. Kahne is heading to Lowe’s looking for the season sweep, which should leave Kahne’s fans cautiously optimistic, but beware: May’s Coca-Cola 600 win was Kahne’s only career top 10 at the track.
Kyle Busch: Poor Kyle Busch; not even an 11th-place finish can dig him out of the Chase cellar. After starting off with two terrible runs, he has rebounded in the last two weeks, finishing seventh and 11th; still, he finds himself a distant 185 points behind Burton. He better hope this newfound momentum carries over to this Saturday night’s race, because looking at his record at Lowe’s, he needs all the help he can get. In five races, Busch has finished no better than 25th; that doesn’t bode well for him as he tries to dig out of the hole he buried himself in early.
THE RACE FOR 11TH
After winning at Kansas, Tony Stewart suffered a bout of bad luck at Talladega, or should I say Big One syndrome. He was running well, a contender to finish in the top 10, before a late-race accident damaged his car and sent him reeling to a 22nd-place finish. With Stewart’s bad luck, the biggest winner of the three drivers fighting for 11th was Carl Edwards; his ninth-place run, combined with Greg Biffle‘s 41st-place finish, vaulted him up to 12th. Edwards has an edge over the other two drivers this weekend at Lowe’s, where he has an average finish of 5.3. But he has a long way to go to catch Stewart and seriously challenge for 11th spot.
The standings got a lot closer after the craziness that ensued at Talladega this past Sunday, but will that be the case again after Saturday night’s race at Lowe’s? Can Johnson continue his dominance of his sponsor’s “home track,” getting back into the battle for the championship? Will Gordon be able to break his DNF streak? Can the RCR teammates hold off the challenge from the Roush camp, or will young Hamlin sneak in and steal the limelight from all of them? We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase for the Championship.
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