With the first two races of the Round of 12 complete, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series field is gearing up for the Chase’s wild-card track: Talladega Superspeedway.
In typical Chase fashion, some drivers are more desperate than others.
Two of the 12 playoff contenders can rest easy. Jimmie Johnson’s triumphant return to form at Charlotte Motor Speedway means he’s only one round away from a shot at a record-tying seventh championship. Kevin Harvick also has a chance to continue his incredible streak of Chase rounds made after doing what he does best at Kansas Speedway – leaving the track with a win after entering with his back against the wall.
The rest of the 10 Chase drivers will make their way to Talladega with hopes of either survival or triumph. Six drivers — Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex, Jr. and Joey Logano — need to only hold their position on the grid to maintain their place in the next round.
The other four? They’ll need to rise up, either in the standings or making a trip to Victory Lane.
Any of the four can advance to the next round, and the two previous iterations of the Chase suggests that one or more of them will. But which will it be?
Attempting to predict any sort of success at Talladega is akin to trying to win big on a gas station lottery card, but I’m feeling lucky. Let’s take a look at each driver’s chances.
Round of 8 Chances
Austin Dillon: 50/50
Points Position: Ninth, 0 points behind the bubble
I feel like we just heard this story.
Austin Dillon enters Talladega just behind the right side of the grid, and I mean -just- on the the wrong side, losing the eighth spot to Logano on a tiebreaker.
In the first round of the playoff it was Dillon that surged ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson when the organization suffered a full-scale breakdown at the worst possible time.
For Dillon to repeat that act in the Round of 12, he’ll likely just need to survive to the finish.
Richard Childress Racing’s youngest NSCS driver, the elder Dillon brother hasn’t garnered much praise for his restrictor-plate prowess, but the stats indicate that the third-year shoe might be better than he appears.
In six starts at Talladega, Dillon has made it to the finish four times. In those four completed races, the North Carolina native has yet to finish worse than 15th, rising as high as third in April’s Geico 500.
While Dillon has never been a factor to win in the closing stages, he has found himself in third-place on the white-flag lap on two separate occasions, including his Talladega debut in replacement for the injured Tony Stewart in 2013.
Sitting so close to the bubble, Dillon likely won’t need a victory to clinch his spot in the next round. All the RCR driver needs to do is find the same level of success he’s enjoyed a few times in his brief career at Talladega.
Possible? Yes. Likely? Too difficult to predict.
Denny Hamlin: Low
Points Position: 10th, six points behind the bubble
I know what you’re thinking: How can the defending Daytona 500 champion have lower odds to advance than the Chase’s biggest remaining underdog?
The answer is simple: Inconsistency.
Denny Hamlin’s history at Talladega can best be summarized using the term all-or-nothing. In 21 starts at the Alabama circuit, Hamlin has seven top-10 finishes, including a victory in 2014. However, the Virginian also has 12 finishes outside of the top 20, including six finishes of 31st or worst.
The highs are as high as they come, including four finishes inside of the top four, but the lows that have plagued Hamlin – particularly in the track’s fall race – make him a risky pick to advance in the Chase. Hamlin hasn’t recorded a top 10 in the October trip to the 2.5-mile oval since 2011.
The Daytona 500 champion has yet to survive to the Championship Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Unfortunately for Hamlin, his position in the points and history at the track doesn’t provide much promise that the trend will change in 2016.
Brad Keselowski: Above Average
Points Position: 11th, seven points behind the bubble
Yes, Brad Keselowski finds himself on the wrong side of the bubble after his Kansas crash, and yes, he’s likely going to need a victory to rise into the Chase field after falling seven points off-pace, but there’s still no safer pick –on the bubble or in the field– to get to victory lane at Talladega.
Keselowski leads the field with four victories at the 2.5-mile oval since the Michigan native’s 2009 debut at the track – which also provided his first NSCS win. The Team Penske driver also sits third among active drivers with a career average finish of 13.9 at the Alabama facility.
Keselowski enters this weekend with nine top 10s and 10 top 15s in 15 starts at Talladega, and while he also has three finishes outside of the top 30 — no one’s bulletproof at ‘Dega — the ratio of highs to lows in much higher for Keselowski than anyone else in the Chase grid.
Perhaps the best argument for Keselowski, however, is his 2016 restrictor plate success.
After struggling to a 20th-place run in the Daytona 500, Keselowski’s No. 2 team singlehandedly controlled the following two restrictor-plate races at Talladega and Daytona, earning dominant victories in each race. Unless the field can come up with something to stop Keselowski from repeating that success, the 2012 NSCS champion could be in position to race his way into the Round of 8 for the second time in three years.
Chase Elliott: Very Low
Points Position: 12th, 25 points behind the bubble
Chase Elliott’s unprecedented rookie season has exceeded the expectations of nearly everyone associated with the former late model ace, but unless he can get the ‘ole sireen in Dawsonville, Georgia ringing with a victory, his Chase will likely end after Talladega.
Issues in back-to-back races have trapped the likely rookie of the year in a deep hole in the points standings. With that being the case, Elliott will likely need a victory on Sunday to keep his playoff hopes alive.
Possible? Yes. Likely? No way.
Elliott certainly has the talent — a February XFINITY Series victory at Daytona and a fifth-place NSCS run at Talladega prove that the Georgian has the chops to get the job done — but the pressure is so high on Elliott, and the son of former NSCS champion Bill Elliott’s never before made his way to victory lane in the Cup Series.
Elliott’s season will be deemed a success by all but the strictest of the No. 24 team’s fanbase regardless of how his second trip to Talladega goes. However, any hopes for the rookie to advance to the next round of the Chase likely involve arguably one of the greatest wins in Chase history, so picking him to advance is something only the bravest would dare to do leaving Kansas.