If there’s anything to expect about Talladega it’s that you shouldn’t expect anything. The nature of restrictor-plate racing, especially at the Alabama track, makes it pretty much one giant crapshoot. While some drivers certainly have more skill than others at the track, one mistake by somebody else can erase it all in an instant.
On the flip side, it does set up the possibility of a win by someone who isn’t a regular in Victory Lane, which is never a bad thing for the sport. In terms of the Chase, the good news for Brad Keselowski is that he does have the most wins (four) and the best average finish for any Chase driver with more than five starts at the track, so it’s the best possible place for him to turn it around. It’s also Chase Elliott’s last chance to keep his Chase hopes alive, but the good news for him is that he had a top-5 run in the spring, and more importantly, he has three teammates who can make it their sole mission to help him to the win. It’s not over for anybody yet.
Martinsville is the anti-Talladega in many ways. It’s a track where bumpers will be bent and tempers will flare, but mistakes are not fatal to a driver’s day. It’s the closest track to NASCAR’s short track roots, and probably the one least affected by changes throughout the years.
Martinsville is almost always a race that leaves fans wanting more as the laps wind down as you wonder where they went and wish there were a hundred more. The favorite has to be Jimmie Johnson, with eight wins under his belt, and a ninth would guarantee him what he desires most: a sure shot at a seventh title. Denny Hamlin will also be gunning for the win, either for the pass to Homestead if he makes it to the Round of 8 after Talladega, or to settle the score if he doesn’t.
Mile-and-a-half Texas could be the track where Joe Gibbs Racing reasserts itself as a title favorite. Like Martinsville, Johnson is a clear favorite, with six wins and the best average among those with five or more starts. But beyond that, the next three on the average finish list are JGR drivers Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Hamlin, with Carl Edwards and JGR affiliate Martin Truex, Jr. also in the top 10 in that category.
If JGR’s 2016 stranglehold has weakened a bit in recent weeks, it could tighten again with a vengeance in the Lone Star State.
Phoenix is a good race to have between Texas and Homestead. With its unique shape, Phoenix has provided some great racing recently, and that’s something fans need as they stare down the offseason. If you’re looking for a favorite, look no further than Kevin Harvick.
How dominant has the Stewart-Haas driver been at the one-mile oval in the desert? He’s won six of the last eight races there and has a career average finish of 10.3. That average isn’t at the top of the list though because for the third track in a row, Johnson’s is. Those two could put on quite a show, especially if both of them are looking to lock in a spot in the Championship 4.
It all comes down to this one final race. I don’t love Homestead for the season finale, simply because the track doesn’t make for great racing overall. There are a few tracks I’d choose instead, but the weather in Miami is usually good, so it’s a safe choice.
What can fans expect from the title run? Not knowing who will make the Championship 4 makes that a bit tricky. The race winner has taken the title the last two seasons, which is bad news for Johnson, who has never won at the track or even run particularly well there. Harvick has the best average finish of all active drivers at Homestead, with Truex, Jr. close behind. Also strong: Hamlin; if he makes it that far, he’s in the mix.
This year’s Chase might be the least predictable since the elimination format began two years ago, so the last five races could either clarify things… or muddy the waters even further. Fans should see some good racing along the way.
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