WILD CARD Historically, Talladega has potential to scramble–Chase
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
The points standings at the top of the Chase chart are as close as they’ve ever been with four races to go, and now it’s time to play the wild card in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Sunday’s Amp Energy Juice 500 at Talladega Superspeedway is viewed as the “wild card” in NASCAR’s 10-race run to the championship, since the track and its restrictor plate racing tends to lead to a Big Wreck that could bring about a big scramble in the points standings with just three races left to run – after Talladega – this season.
Right now, Jimmie Johnson leads Martinsville winner Denny Hamlin by six points, with Kevin Harvick, in third place 62 points back, the only other driver who is heading into Talladega with a reasonable chance of taking the points lead.
The Talladega race also is seen by many as a last chance to ratchet up interest among fans and TV viewers, who haven’t taken to this Chase as many in NASCAR had hoped.
Johnson, who is on pace to win a record fifth-straight championship, is among those who view Talladega as having the potential to drastically change the complexion of the Chase in a matter of seconds.
“I still can’t stress it enough that Talladega can equal this whole thing up, and it’s an eight-car race or a 10-car race for the championship,” Johnson said. “After we get out of Talladega, there will be more of a clear strategy that will kind of unfold, and we’ll know who we really need to race and what to do from there.
“Hopefully we are in a position to protect. That’s the position I want to be in … I want to go to Talladega and win that race, but you just don’t know … After Talladega, I’ll know what I need to do then.”
Hamlin, whose recent runs indicate he’s a serious threat to dethrone the four-time and defending Chase champion, said last week that one strategy for him could be to keep Johnson in front of him all day at Talladega, so that if one gets swept up in a wreck, so will the other.
“If I’m around him or right behind him, if I’m going to be in a bad spot – say I’m 15th and get caught in a wreck – then I make sure that he’s around me, then more than likely he’s going to be in, or put himself in, a bad spot, too,” Hamlin said.
But Hamlin also pointed out that he believes he can race for the win at Talladega.
“That’s not saying that I’m going to follow him around for 500 miles or whatever next week, because honestly I feel like we have a better Talladega package than what those guys [Johnson’s team] have had,” he said.
Harvick – the points leader for much of the 26-race regular season and still right in the thick of the championship battle – pointed out that for drivers, racing at Talladega is as much about what those around you do as it is about what you do yourself.
“When you get to Talladega you’re kind of at the mercy of a lot of things that can happen around you,” he said, adding that he agrees with his fellow drivers that the Chase picture will be much more clear after the checkered flag falls Sunday afternoon. And he’ll know better what he and his team need to do strategy-wise to make a run for the title.
“I think after you get done with Talladega you’ll kind of know where you stand as far as what you need to do over the last few weeks,” he said. “I think the last few weeks are really good race tracks for us, and Talladega is a good race track for us as well.
“They can all flip you upside down and turn things around and have things turn at any given week, but it seems that Talladega is definitely the biggest wild card as far as what’s going to happen and who is going to get caught in a wreck and who isn’t.
“So, I think everybody is waiting for that particular race to see where you stack up from there.”