Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions: How Will Talladega Shake Up the Chase?

Its big. Its fast. Its scary (although not as scary as it used to be). Yes ladies and gents, its Talladega. No other track on the circuit is capable of paradoxically inspiring so much love and hatred at the same time. Of course, whether you love it or hate it, there is no questioning the fact that the Fall race at Talladega is one of the biggest and most drama-filled races of the year. And perhaps most importantly, Talladega is the track that can have the biggest impact on the Chase picture. Thus, without further ado, lets take at the big stories heading into the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500.

*1. What kind of racing will we see this weekend?*

Forget the Chase, forget the 2013 car, and forget every other possible news item that could conceivably fit into this column for just a moment. When the Sprint Cup Series circuit rolls into Talladega, the action on-track trumps every other storyline going into the race. The big question on everyone’s minds this week is what the racing is going to look like, and given the fact that all of the other plate races have a had a slightly different look and feel to them this season, predicting what kind of action we will see this weekend is a tall order, but it is certainly not impossible.

The one thing we know for sure is that the ambient air temperature will play a huge role in the way the race plays out. The current aero package being used for the Cup Series is very hard on engines, and if drivers are not prudent about how and when they choose to push, they can overheat their engines quickly. Thus if the air temperature is hot, passing will be difficult, as the drivers will not be able to push long enough to pull off passes in the draft unless they have an exceptionally good car (see: Roush Fenway Racing).

This is troubling, because this aero package has also become notorious for the fact that drivers have extreme difficulty in making the high lane work. If the front two cars in the upper lane aren’t pushing, the high lane doesn’t move. This is not quite as much of an issue at Talladega as it was at Daytona due to Talladega’s older and wider surface (both are factors which allow for increased side drafting and less of a low line advantage, both of which are necessary to move the outside line), but it is an issue nonetheless.

The bottom line is this: if the air temperature soars to anywhere above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, passing will be hard to come by. The cars that are the fastest in traffic and have the coolest engines will be the ones fighting it out at the end, and everyone else will likely be wrecked or have a burnt engine. NASCAR has acknowledged that this current aero package isn’t perfect (and was never meant to be), and thus you can expect most of these issues to be phased out with the 2013 cars.

Carl Edwards tried to play it safe during the Chase at Talladega last year and came up with a mediocre finish that may have been key to losing the championship.

*2. How will the threat of the Big One affect the race strategy of Chase Drivers?*

We see it every year. Every season in this particular race, a group of Chase drivers try to get cute and hang out in the back all day to avoid the Big One, and then by the end of the race they try to make an ill-fated charge to the front of the pack. Jimmie Johnson and Dale Jr. famously tried to employ this strategy in last year’s race only to find that they couldn’t make any headway at the end, and their forced conservatism likely knocked them out of Chase contention for good (in Johnson’s case, it at least put his chances on their last legs). What usually ends up happening in these scenarios is that the driver(s) who hung out back all day try to make a mad dash to the front once it’s far too late, and they end up getting caught up in the wreck that they were so desperately trying to avoid (Carl Edwards, 2008). Maybe it’s just me, but I find that to be a hilarious bit of irony.

The Big One obviously is going to be on the minds of many drivers heading into the race, and there is no doubt many teams will craft their race strategy around trying to avoid it. However, as mentioned earlier, this plate package does not lend itself to easy passing. Thus, if a driver gets stuck in the back, he runs a high risk of never finding the front of the pack for the duration of the race. All told, this means that the ideal strategy is to simply run up front and hope for the best. Regardless of what anyone says, history shows that’s the best course of action.

At any rate, you can absolutely expect to see anywhere from as little as one to as many as six drivers trying to work this ridiculous strategy on Sunday, and you can fully expect that it will blow up in many (if not all?) of their faces.

*3. Can Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle resuscitate their Chase chances with a good run at Talladega?*

This season, the Roush tandem of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle have been an unstoppable force on the plate tracks. Armed with the powerful and easy-to-cool Ford FR9 engine, the Roushketeers have been the pied pipers of restrictor plate racing in 2012. Not since 2004, when DEI was at the peak of their restrictor plate racing prowess, have we seen a team this dominant on the sport’s biggest tracks. With this in mind, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle ought to be salivating at the prospect of this weekend’s race.

It has been well documented that RFR has been off the mark during the Chase thus far, and with both drivers sitting a distant 11th and 12th in the Chase standings, it is imperative that each driver capitalizes on the opportunity sitting in front of them this Sunday. With how strong the Nos. 17 and 16 have been on these tracks this year, either driver could easily throw himself back into Chase contention if one of them were to nab a victory while other Chasers have poor runs.

Conversely, if poor luck or mechanical issues befall the Roush drivers for a fourth straight week, they can officially kiss whatever shot they had at the title goodbye

*4. Can a non-chaser pull off the upset?*

I called out the non-Chasers last week in this column and urged them to step it up, and in the AAA 400 at Dover, one of them finally did. Kyle Busch put together a great race that was undone by poor fuel mileage at the race’s conclusion. Kyle and the other non-Chasers have another shot this weekend to steal the thunder of the Chase drivers and get an all-important win. With the nature of the draft and the threat of the Big One at hand, Talladega is the last great chance for a non-Chaser to get a win in 2012. Now, that’s not to say that anyone can win this race. That is a fallacy that really isn’t as well-supported by history as some folks like to think, and given how hard it is to pass with this plate package, it will be doubly hard for the true underdogs to steal a win.

Having said that, non-Chasers who drive for powerhouse teams (think Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, etc.) are in prime position to grab a victory on Sunday. Most of the Chase drivers are going to be playing it safe for the majority of the day, thus leaving the battle for the lead to the guys with nothing to lose. This makes guys like Busch, Logano, and Edwards attractive picks for Sunday’s race, as they have lots of horsepower and no Chase implications to worry about. That could be a winning combination in the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500.

*Connect with Matt!*

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