For many, the Fall Talladega Sprint Cup race brings with it a definite sense that anything can happen. Due to the superspeedway’s ability to provide a more even playing field for teams, along with its susceptibility for “The Big One,” the days leading up to the race are often filled with impatient fans and teams that worry for their drivers’ and cars’ well-being. Or, there will be potential contenders, including those that have had a season filled with futility which talk up the possibility of a good showing — a cycle of talk that was all happening _before_ NASCAR threw its Chase postseason format into the equation.
Nowadays, championship hopefuls are faced with constant questions about what could happen at the Alabama racetrack. What if they got taken out in a huge crash? Or shuffled to the back of the pack at race’s end after leading most of the day, due to bad luck with the draft? NASCAR’s inclusion of Talladega in its Chase schedule has provided even more hype to the event, which is said to both make and break seasons and championship dreams.
But looking back historically, is Talladega really the “Great Equalizer” it’s often said to be when it comes to the Chase?
Well … no, not really.
Talladega has taken on many different roles in the Chase. In 2004, it was the 29th race of the season, or the third of the postseason. This placement continued until 2006, where it was the 30th race (fourth of the Chase) until 2008. In 2009, Talladega was moved to become the season’s 33rd (Chase race number seven), and in 2012 moves back to event 30.
So Talladega’s overall impact on the Chase has changed over the years not just due to what actually happens in the race, but because of where the race is placed. An earlier date still gave drivers a chance to recover, while a later-in-the-season race could have all but sealed their fate if it was a bad showing.
But it rarely comes to that, or at least not in the way of someone’s championship hopes getting totally dashed. In fact, the championship lead has only changed hands three times from the Talladega race, and it hasn’t happened at all since 2007, when Jeff Gordon took the lead from Jimmie Johnson — after the Hendrick Motorsports teammates finished one-two.
In fact, 2007 was one of the more notable races in terms of drivers having poor results affecting their standings positions. While Denny Hamlin leaped from the cellar of the Chase to ninth following a fourth-place finish, Martin Truex, Jr. and Jeff Burton finished 42nd and 43rd, respectively (Kyle Busch finished 36th, also a subpar showing). Yet none of these drivers were really in contention at that point, making their poor results fairly inconsequential.
The years 2004 and 2005 also saw changes, this time at the front of the pack. In 2004, Kurt Busch gained the lead (and eventually the championship) from Jeff Gordon, whose 19th-place showing dropped him to 48 points out of the top spot. Then, the following year, in arguably the biggest shakeup of the points, Jimmie Johnson went from leading the standings to fifth after slumping to 31st. Tony Stewart took the lead after a runner-up performance and went on to win the championship.
2006’s Talladega race was the beginning of the end for Jeff Burton’s championship hopes. He finished 27th, cutting his series lead from 84 points to a mere six over Matt Kenseth. Burton eventually finished seventh in the overall standings and his lack of a good finish did probably help out eventual champ Jimmie Johnson, who was only able to manage 24th that day and still sat a distant eighth in the standings before his improbable comeback. If Burton runs in the top 10 there, maybe Johnson thinks that miracle is an impossibility the rest of the way?
Since those early years, though instances of major impact have been few and far between as Chase hopefuls realize the dangers Talladega brings. If anything, the plate race has helped build championship leads in more recent times. Johnson’s ninth-place showing in 2008 bumped his points advantage over Carl Edwards from 10 to 72, while his sixth place in 2009 increased his lead from 118 to 184. His 2010 campaign, though not as successful, was still a boost, as he jumped from six to 14 points ahead after finishing seventh. Carl Edwards also saw a modest gain in his lead following the race in 2011 (seven points to 14), though he was unable to seal the deal by season’s end.
All told, the points leader entering Talladega has *not* ended up the overall champion four times, three of those being during the first three years of the Chase (the fourth was in 2011).
So the notion that Talladega brings such winds of change may stem from its reputation as a track likely to house a big wreck. But even that has been altered over the last few years, when we’ve seen far fewer major crashes than before. Still, the allure exists because of the higher likelihood that it _could_ happen. That’s why both fans and television broadcasters alike will hype this weekend’s Talladega race as so unpredictable to the Chase’s eventual results. No other track in the postseason has such a history of causing chaos in the blink of an eye.
But given restrictor plate racing’s recent affinity for enabling two-car drafts, duets that are often made up by some of the sport’s elite, don’t expect the Chase drivers to be hung out to dry by the draft with no shot of winning. Other misfortunes would have to happen in order for them to be taken out.
Instead, just expect most hopefuls to hang around the back until toward the race’s ending, hesitating to make moves up front even if history shows us it’s not necessary. Because whether or not Talladega is actually the great equalizer it’s made out to be, the mere reputation it’s received over the years — for better or for worse — will keep teams worried and mindful.