It’s the one wreck all year that leaves everyone at risk, from championship contenders to field-fillers alike: the “Big One.” You never know when it’s going to happen at Talladega, and you never quite know how many cars – or carnage – it’ll cause.
Sunday, its damage was quite extensive.
A handful of Chasers, including Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, got dragged into a fall mess of mangled machinery coming out of turn 4, all caused when Bobby Labonte simply lost control and spun out in front of the field. The results really jumbled up the Chase standings; for when the smoke cleared, all title contenders figured out just two men had left the rest of them eating their own dust. It was all par for the course in another restrictor-plate roller coaster ride that left engines burning up, Chasers on life support, and fans sitting on the edge of their seats for a last-lap shootout to the finish.
So, which Chasers head to Lowe’s on an Alabama High, and which ones are getting busy preparing for next year at this point? Find out in this week’s Chase Edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Nextel Cup.
Jeff Gordon – Last week, we discussed in this space how Gordon had to end a 15-race winless streak to truly establish himself as a title favorite. Well, mission accomplished. Going with the tried and true strategy of just running at the back and avoiding wrecks for the first 450 miles, it’s not as if you could say the Rainbow Warrior had the strongest car all day at Talladega. But late in the going, Gordon fell in with the right cars and the right line, making masterful moves to dart by teammate Jimmie Johnson and lead his only lap all day – the last one. Now, he’s got a nine-point lead in points to go along with his win, but don’t expect this team to breathe easy yet; Lowe’s has proven an Achilles’ Heel for the Rainbow Warrior, as in his last five starts, he has yet to finish higher than 24th.
Johnson – At least Johnson can look on the bright side after his runner-up finish; he didn’t wreck like last year! Still, placing second to your main contender in the title Chase can’t help but sting for a No. 48 bunch that will be battling it out with their car owner, of all people, the rest of the way. That battle should tilt Johnson’s way at Lowe’s this weekend; he absolutely owns the place, with five wins and 11 top-10 finishes in 12 career starts. It goes without saying this man is the Chaser to watch on Saturday night; and keep in mind, a win gives him back the point lead over his closest challenger.
Clint Bowyer – How Bowyer’s engine held together on Sunday, we may never know; out of seven RCR/DEI engine combinations, his was the only one to cross the finish line running on all eight cylinders. But that stroke of luck couldn’t have come at a better time for a man that never seemed to have it at Talladega; an 11th-place run is a far cry from his previous three starts here, all of which wound up with him not even cracking the top 30. As a result, Bowyer remains within striking distance of the top three, adding onto his streak of five straight finishes of 12th or better.
Tony Stewart – For a second straight week, Stewart left the track without comment Sunday; but this time, he’ll be far more pleased at the results when he looks back on the race he jetted out of. A top-10 finish gives him 10 in the last 12 races, a streak unmatched by anyone as he does his best to keep himself within range of both Johnson and Gordon. Now 154 back with six races left, that’s a long way to go; but if there’s any team whose experience and resiliency could peel back a deficit like that, it’s Stewart.
Kurt Busch – The popular darkhorse pick for the title hasn’t made much of a sound… and that’s a good thing for a team that needs to do everything right to have a chance at that championship trophy. Sunday, they came close – a car that ran up front a good portion of the day just seemed to fade late, relegating him to a mere seventh-place finish. Looking ahead, this week is critical as to whether Kurt will have a shot at completing a possible climb back into contention; he’s never done well at Lowe’s, but needs a boost in the worst way with Gordon and Johnson running like they are.
Carl Edwards – Can you say, “inconsistency?” Cousin Carl goes from the penthouse to the outhouse every race, it seems, as last week’s devastating unlucky crash was followed up with a 14th-place finish on Sunday. Clearly, the No. 99 car ran better than that all day long – he just didn’t have the right drafting partners at the end, an issue that’s not all that uncommon for plate tracks. Now, though, it’s time to get serious for Edwards if he wants that title; the gap between first and sixth in points is now a growing 205.
Kevin Harvick – Harvick woes? Engine blows? I don’t know. Whatever the reasoning, the No. 29 car continues to be off all season long, and there’s no on-track performance out there to indicate something’s going to change anytime soon. With eight straight top-20 finishes under his belt, that’s little solace for a team that found itself on seven cylinders at Talladega – and now a likely insurmountable 202 points out of the championship lead.
Denny Hamlin – Now that title dreams are all but over for Hamlin this year – he’s 262 behind the leaders – it doesn’t mean he’s still not giving it all he’s got. After being involved in a savage wreck, the No. 11 car not only fixed the problem, but kept Hamlin on the lead lap in the process. The final results? Hamlin’s team pulled out a miracle and wound up fourth. A top-10 points finish is likely the best this team’s going to have, but it’s a valiant effort by Hamlin to fight off a late-blooming sophomore slump.
Kenseth – When it’s not your year, it’s not your year, and it’s as simple as that. All throughout the Chase, Kenseth has finally been blessed with the cars he wanted; the only problem is, now he’s having trouble simply holding them together for 400 or 500 miles. If it’s not mechanical failure, it’s wrecks (see: Talladega) which have doomed this team. The question now is, how long can the momentum from “leading laps only to wind up in the garage myself” methodology keep going before the whole thing is deflated for good.
Martin Truex Jr. – What a time for DEI/RCR engine woes to finally catch up with Truex. At a track where he could have easily won, Truex did have a handling package on his Chevrolet capable of doing damage – but his car got damaged by parts and pieces instead. Now, arguably the best four tracks that were on the Chase schedule are behind him, and he’s left with a 300-point deficit and six races to cut that to zero. Sorry, but it just doesn’t seem like that’s going to have a ghost of a chance.
Kyle Busch – Two races, two straight wrecks for the No. 5 car. No question about it, stick a fork in this team – they’re done, especially with Tony Eury Jr. about to enter the Hendrick building this week. The resulting distraction should be more than enough to lead the Kellogg’s Chevy astray for the final six races of the season.
Jeff Burton – No question about it, Burton is a bitterly disappointed man after a Chase that began with so much promise has now completely unraveled. For the second straight week, the car suffered mechanical failure – this time, it was the engine that went south on the AT&T Chevy, the first casualty on a day when DEI/RCR engines began dropping like flies on lap 95.
Don’t expect Lowe’s to stop the bleeding, either; it’s a track that the team finished a ho-hum 24th at this spring.
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