*Who is the one driver to watch on Sunday?*
Without a doubt the one driver to keep an eye on this weekend is Jimmie Johnson. The five-time champion suddenly finds himself on the outside looking in after a crash at Charlotte dropped him five spots in the standings (now 35 points out) with five races remaining. Heading to the first of two wildcard races – a re-configured Phoenix being the other – Johnson is now in desperation mode. If it were any other driver in Johnson’s position you may be quick to write him off, but he’s proven doubters wrong time after time throughout his championship run and many are wondering if that will be the case again this season.
One thing is for certain though…if Johnson is to contend for the championship, he needs a top 5 this weekend, at least, and a little help. It will be interesting to see the No. 48 team’s strategy as Johnson, who typically races conservatively on the superspeedways, may have to race for maximum points by leading laps early and often and contending for the win. If the two-car tandem plays out as we’ve become accustomed to there’s nothing Johnson can really do in terms of laps led, but if we see some more pack racing than previous plate races it will be interesting to see if he tries to stay out front. He’s had some success at Talladega in the past with two wins and nine top-10s, but this could ultimately be his biggest race there.
*Will the new rules package make for better racing?*
This weekend marks the first restrictor plate race with the new rules package that NASCAR implemented just a couple of months ago. The goal is to limit the amount of two-car tandem racing that has bothered drivers and fans. While introducing a larger restrictor plate and making changes to the pressure relief valve settings will limit the amount of two-car racing, it will not eliminate it.
A perfect balance of two-car tandem racing and large pack racing will certainly make this weekend’s race a must-see. The larger plate should also make for more passing and will make the final lap more of a crapshoot than we’ve seen in a long time. Faster speeds, more passing and a balance of the two plate race styles we’ve seen in recent years could make for a classic and will certainly turn the Chase on its head. Anything earned or lost in the first five races can be made up or lost in one race. It’s sure to be a good one.
*Will promotion cause a stir?*
One of the other stories this weekend is the promotion intended to encourage more racing upfront at Talladega. The speedway is offering $100,000 to the driver who leads the most laps, if there are 100 lead changes – a NASCAR record – throughout the 188-lap race. What seems like a harmless promotion is sure to raise a couple of eyebrows, however, after the promotion gone wrong that ultimately claimed the life of IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas last week.
The timing is poor, although the speedway did release the details a few weeks ago. Still, more than a few fans are going to hear of Sunday’s promotion and instantly reminisce about the horror we watched unfold last Sunday. Personally I don’t think these types of promotions belong in racing, but in comparing the two there are few similarities. Wheldon was racing for $2.5 million, and another $2.5 million for a fan and was forced to start from the back of the pack on a track the series wasn’t used to competing on. It was a large sum of money that put one driver in a very bad position. What we’re going to see on Sunday will not do either of these. $100,000 is not an unbelievable amount for drivers who make much more than that, and the minimum of 100 lead changes will more than likely not change the way most race.
*Who has the most to lose/gain from Talladega?*
Talladega is sure to produce a number of highs and lows for Chase drivers and its wildcard nature is sure to jumble the standings. The one driver who has the most to gain is the aforementioned Jimmie Johnson. He could also fall on the list of most to lose too because a poor finish will eliminate his chance to win a sixth championship. But the one driver who may have the most to lose is the one Chase driver that could be considered a favorite on Sunday: Kevin Harvick. Harvick’s recent success at superspeedways has been well-documented. He has four plate race wins and a staggering 26 top-10 finishes at plate tracks, in addition to one win and six top-fives at Talladega. Harvick currently sits second in points, five points out, so he has some margin for error, but this is one race he is supposed to have an advantage over his close competitors as the intermediate tracks are largely favorable to the Chase field. He could finish in the top-five on Sunday and it wouldn’t be widely celebrated, but a poor finish and suddenly Harvick would be in hole with four races remaining.
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