By Jared Turner
It’s all come down to this.
While a dozen drivers are still championship-eligible heading into Sunday’s elimination race at Talladega Superspeedway, only eight will leave the notoriously unpredictable 2.66-mile track still in the title hunt.
Among the 12 Chase drivers, only Joey Logano has punched his ticket to the Eliminator 8. Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr., meanwhile, are the only drivers who pretty much have to win at Talladega to advance. With just 20 points separating second-place Denny Hamlin from 10th-place Ryan Newman, it’s impossible to project which drivers will ultimately make it into the next round.
And that makes the intrigue and pressure all the more significant for Sunday’s race at a track already known for major multi-car wrecks that can erupt at anytime.
At least this much is certain: None of the drivers still in contention for the title are willing to concede elimination just yet, because Talladega can and often does deliver the unthinkable.
“Don’t count us out,” said Earnhardt Jr., who is 11th among the 12 remaining Chase drivers and a whopping 31 points behind the eighth and final transfer driver, Martin Truex Jr. “We’ve got confidence and we’ve definitely got a car to do it. Talladega’s the track I’m ready to go to. That’s our best shot to win.”
Earnhardt is a six-time winner at the high-speed Alabama facility, and went to Victory Lane there back in early May. So he’s not letting his current position in the standings get him down.
“I’m not frustrated,” the Hendrick Motorsports driver said. “I’m not mentally or emotionally drained or anything like that. The way the Chase is racked up, it’s going to give you these kind of results if you don’t perform. We’re going to have to go to Talladega and try not to get eliminated, but I’ve been in this before, and it is what it is. We’ll try to go run hard and if we don’t win the championship this year, it’s not life-threatening.”
Truex, the driver currently clinging to the final transfer spot, doesn’t know what kind of strategy he’ll use at Talladega. Unlike Earnhardt and Kenseth, he doesn’t need to win to advance. But he also can’t afford to play it too safe, either.
“It’s such a random deal,” Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, said of the racing at Talladega. “We’ve typically been better on the superspeedways when we’ve raced aggressively, but it’s hard to tie yourself into doing that, either, so we’ve got all week to think about how we want to play it. Hopefully, we’ve got a good car and that will make it at least easier.”
Carl Edwards is fourth in the Chase standings – a relatively comfortable position to be in, all things considered – but he knows a poor finish at Talladega could cause him to fall out of the top eight and fail to advance.
His strategy is simply business as usual.
“We’ll just go to Talladega and do what we normally do,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. “We’ll be alright. There’s nothing normal about Talladega, so we’ll see what happens.”
Kenseth – despite having to go for broke to move on in the Chase – vows not to alter his strategy, either.
“It’s the same,” the 2003 Sprint Cup Series champion said. “There’s some things you can control and some things you can’t.”
With nothing to lose since he’s already locked into the next round, Logano, meanwhile would love nothing more than to triumph for the first time at Talladega and make it a clean sweep of the three races in the Chase Contender Round.
As he proved in Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway, the Team Penske driver is still hungry to win.
“When you see trophies, you want to get them,” he said.
5 To Watch At Talladega
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a six-time winner at ‘Dega and dominated here in the spring. He’s in a must-win situation this time, though.
Like Earnhardt, Matt Kenseth has to win at Talladega to advance in the Chase. He’s only done that once in 31 starts at the Alabama track.
After wins at Charlotte and Kansas, can Joey Logano make it a clean sweep of the three races in the Chase Contender Round? Don’t rule it out.
This will be Jeff Gordon’s last race at Talladega, a track where he’s had great success but admittedly doesn’t enjoy racing.
Brad Keselowski triumphed one year ago in a must-win scenario at Talladega. He doesn’t have to win to advance this year, but he could win nevertheless.