Wild Card! Lottery! Unpredictable!
You've heard those words and their brothers, sisters, cousins, and long-lost relatives more often than you can probably count when it comes to describing the Talladega Chase race, and let's be honest, they're all applicable. However, there's no point in rehashing what we already know, and that basically boils down to "anything could happen."
While the races themselves at Talladega can be unpredictable, the performance of the eventual champion isn't. Only once in the eight-year history of the Chase has the eventual champion finished outside the top 10 at Talladega. That was Jimmie Johnson in 2006 — the race that saw him go spinning off the back bumper of then-teammate Brian Vickers as he went for the lead on the final lap. Here's how our three Chase champs have fared:
2004: 5th (Kurt Busch)
2005: 2nd (Tony Stewart)
2006: 24th (Jimmie Johnson)
2007: 2nd (Johnson)
2008: 9th (Johnson)
2009: 6th (Johnson)
2010: 7th (Johnson)
2011: 7th (Stewart)
After Sunday's race at Dover, Brad Keselowski said that it was then too soon to be picking favorites. But if seven of eight Talladega races are any indication, it may not be too soon to pick one late Sunday afternoon. And the guy atop the (admittedly easily skewed) average finish list is also atop the points standings:
Keselowski: In seven Talladega starts, @Kes has wins in his first one — guess what race that was! — and his last one, when he separated himself from Kyle Busch in May on the race's final lap in turns three and four. He's got an average finish of 13.0 and five top fives.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Kind of surprising that it's not Junior atop this list, isn't it? Junior has an average finish of 14.8, and his last Talladega win came in the 2004. He's led laps in 23 of his 25 Talladega starts. If he wins on Sunday, do you think NASCAR will let him say (poop) in victory lane without fear of a penalty? (Come on Junior, please do it if you win just to see what would happen.)
Tony Stewart: Smoke finished second six times before he broke through in 2008 for his only Talladega victory. And last year's Chase race is his only top 15 since then. If Stewart betters his average finish of 15.5, he's going to still be a title threat.
Kevin Harvick: Cupcake is a notch below Smoke at 15.6 and won his only Talladega race in the spring of 2010. Last year in this race, he was caught up in a crash on lap 105 and finished 32nd, effectively killing his Chase hopes.
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer is tied with Harvick in the average finish department and has won this race the last two years. A third consecutive win on Sunday could make a lot of people realize that Bowyer is a legit title threat.
Jeff Gordon: Sunday will be Jeff Gordon's 40th race at Talladega, and in his previous 39 starts he has six wins, including back-to-back wins in 2007 for an average finish of 16.8. Since those two wins, Gordon has been hampered by bad luck and has just two top 10s. How Jeff Gordon would it be if he finished first and then the top six drivers in the Chase finished second through seventh?
Johnson: Johnson hasn't finished any of the season's first three restrictor plate races, so first up on his checklist is to simply finish Sunday's race, and then he can worry about where he finishes. He finished 35th in the spring thanks to a blown engine, one of four engine failures he has in 21 Talladega starts. His average finish is 17.7
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin has three top fives in 13 Talladega starts and an average finish of 18.2 and he's finished 8th and 9th in the last two Chase races here.
Matt Kenseth: The antithesis of Johnson, Kenseth has been incredibly good at the three restrictor plate races this season, finishing first in the Daytona 500, third in the spring at Talladega and then third in July at Daytona. If he's got the same setup again, only a crash will prevent him from bettering his 18.6 average finish.
Greg Biffle: It's something about those Fords this year at plate tracks. Biffle was second to Kenseth in the 500, finished fifth in the spring here and was at the front of the pack on the last lap at Daytona in July when he was involved in a big crash. The Biff's average finish is 19.7, and he'll need to beat that significantly if he wants to have any hope of getting back in the Chase.
Kasey Kahne: Kahne's average finish is 20.8 and has three top fives and four top 10s in 17 Talladega starts. But two of those top 10s have come in the last two races.
Martin Truex Jr.: In 15 Talladega starts, Truex has nine DNFs, which leads to an average finish of 23.8. Two of those were for engine issues and seven were for crashes, including one in the spring race.
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