Talladega. It was the Chase wildcard; everybody knew it. The Big One. Who would be in it? Everybody tried to avoid it… but you knew not everyone could.
In the end, after a number of Chasers raced conservatively for three quarters of the race in anticipation of the big wreck, it was ironically one Chaser tangling with another that triggered a multi-car pileup that included several of those in the top 12. No. 2 in points Carl Edwards ran over teammate and No. 3 man Greg Biffle to start a chain reaction that claimed 11 cars.
One of the few Chasers surviving the race was points leader Jimmie Johnson, who opened up a sizable 72-point lead in the standings as a result. Johnson remains on the HOT list this week, but a surprising driver joins him, becoming a surprise player in this year’s championship battle. To see who it is, and whose Chase hopes went up in smoke, check out this week’s edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup, Chase Edition.
Johnson: It’s too soon to engrave Johnson’s name on his third consecutive Sprint Cup, but surviving what was dubbed the wild card race of the Chase while coming out of Talladega with a 62-point larger cushion over Edwards was a huge step. With the worst behind them, the No. 48 team now has more than a good chance of repeating again as long as they continue to post solid finishes. Opting to stay conservative in the closing laps instead of going for the win, Johnson settled for ninth place this weekend once his competitors fell by the wayside. That seems like a smart move right now, but it will be interesting to see if those additional points Johnson may have gotten if he had been aggressive in the final laps will come back to haunt the No. 48 team if they have a problem later.
Jeff Burton: As he has all season, Burton has flown under the radar this Chase. He was one of the few survivors this weekend, finishing fourth and closing within 100 points of the series lead. With four consecutive top 10s to start the Chase and heading to a track where he finished sixth in May, Burton is quietly sneaking up on Johnson and becoming a sleeper for the title with his trademark consistency.
Edwards: Edwards didn’t show his hand for the first three quarters of the race, deciding to wait for the Big One instead. Ironically, while finally making a move with 14 laps remaining, it was his mistake which triggered an 11-car pileup that took out a number of title contenders, including his two Chase teammates Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Edwards may not be the most popular driver in the garage right now, but he still is one of the most consistent, with three consecutive top-five finishes to start the Chase before slumping to 29th in what he knew would be a wild card race at Talladega.
Biffle: The recipient of an ill-timed Edwards bump, Biffle was one of the many victims of the Big One with 14 laps remaining. Like Edwards, Biffle was red hot before finishing 24th this weekend, and needs Johnson to have some misfortune if he wants to reel in the No. 48 team and have a chance at the title. With three top fives to start the Chase, Biffle has shown he can post consistently solid finishes. However, he just cannot afford another DNF.
Kevin Harvick: Nobody was as outspoken about Edwards triggering the Big One than Harvick, who may have seen his championship hopes go up in smoke along with it. Harvick was involved in the crash and finished 20th, his first non-top 10 of the Chase. All of a sudden now, the No. 29 team has gone from inside the top five and within striking distance of the points leader to sixth and 171 points out. Harvick’s top-10 streak also officially ended at nine races.
Clint Bowyer: All of the Richard Childress Racing cars have been consistent as of late, and Bowyer is no different. With a top-12 streak now at seven races, Bowyer jumped up two spots in points this week and into the top five. To sustain this momentum, though, Bowyer will need to put the past behind him at Lowe’s – he has yet to finish in the top 20 there in three career fall race starts.
Tony Stewart: Say what you want about NASCAR awarding the win to Stewart despite Regan Smith crossing the stripe first (I, for one, have never been a fan of the yellow-line rule), but no one doubts the No. 20 team was in need of a victory, however they could get it. It was Stewart’s first win in his final season with Joe Gibbs Racing and his third top 10 of the Chase. And if it weren’t for a 40th-place flop last week at Kansas, Stewart’s second-worst finish in the Chase is 11th, leaving him flirting with a top five in points instead of a distant seventh.
Jeff Gordon: It was not a good day for Gordon, who ultimately finished 38th with engine problems. The No. 24 team had hopes of keeping pace with their teammate Johnson and the No. 48 team after three top 15s to start the Chase, but dropped two spots in the standings this week to eighth, 232 points out.
Kenseth: Kenseth and Edwards have had run-ins in the past (i.e. Dover, ’07) and it was apparent Kenseth was not too pleased with Edwards triggering the Big One that claimed the No. 17 car. In the four Chase races, now Kenseth has two top fives, but also two DNFs and sits just ninth in points.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: This was one of the Chase races the No. 88 team was supposed to win. They looked good, running up front at several points of the race, but fell victim to the Big One with circumstances beyond their control. Still, since starting the Chase with a top-five finish at Loudon, Junior’s best finish since is 13th – with his two other runs placing outside of the top 20.
Denny Hamlin: One of many victims of tire problems on the weekend, Hamlin certainly had the hardest hit, shooting from the bottom of the track straight into the wall at well over 180 mph. The impact sent Hamlin to the hospital for observation overnight, but he was released without a concussion or other serious injury. The crash did, however, drop the No. 11 team to 12th in points as the 39th-place finish was the team’s second finish of 35th or worse in four Chase races.
Kyle Busch: Lil’ Busch remains on the COLD list this week despite a 15th-place finish with a mangled racecar at ‘Dega. Despite the reasonable comeback, the series leader after the first 26 races still has yet to record a top 10 in the Chase. He’s the only Chase driver with that dubious distinction, collecting an average finish of 30th through his first four races. Ouch.