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Talladega: A wild card or ace up the sleeve?

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Gentlemen, start your fretting.

Perhaps those are the words Marcus Lemonis, chairman of Camping World and the grand marshal of Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway, should really issue to the drivers in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup before they start their engines on the sport's biggest and most unpredictable race track. Because when it comes to the 10 venues in the playoff, none stir more anxiety than that 2.66-mile monster living amongst the North Alabama hills.

Everyone knows why. Innocent bystanders can become victims of a crash that starts a half-dozen rows ahead of them or a pileup triggered by the slightest of bobbles in tight traffic. Drivers strap in and give themselves over to forces beyond their control, from aerodynamic vagaries that seem to have minds of their own, to a line of vehicles that screams around that long ribbon of asphalt like some living thing. The place is 188 white-knuckle laps of flooring it, holding on, and hoping for the best.

No wonder, then, everyone is hesitant to limit this current championship campaign to only Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, who are separated by three points and then have a cushion of 25 more down to third place. 

"At this point, it's never just narrowed down to two," said Jeff Gordon, 36 off the lead in fourth place. "There is just too much racing left, too many points that can be gained and lost. Talladega is around the corner."

Indeed it is, and Talladega is absolutely capable of changing everything, just as it's capable of crumpling a dozen cars in one fell swoop. There have been years in the Chase when title hopefuls came to Talladega only to leave battered, beaten and staring at an insurmountable deficit. Particularly in its current position beginning the back half of the playoff, there's very little room for error. It's very possible that Kenseth or Johnson may experience the kind of catastrophic result Talladega is so infamous for, and from a championship perspective be left as hopeless as the Crimson Tide in a probation year.

But it's also very possible that the leaders will weather whatever storm Talladega throws at them, and continue their march to Homestead unabated. After all that's what happened last season, when Brad Keselowski came to Talladega in the points lead, left in the points lead, and went on to win the title. Johnson did the same in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Carl Edwards was the leader entering Talladega in 2011, left the big Alabama track with an even larger advantage, and lost the championship in a tiebreaker only due to Tony Stewart's devastating finishing kick.

So yes, the place is indeed capable of altering the championship picture. But history shows it's also capable of reinforcing it -- especially this season given the main players involved. Kenseth and Johnson in particular are smart, savvy and accomplished restrictor-plate racers who know their way around a pack as well as anyone. They have cars capable of getting out front and staying there. And if you think either guy is hyperventilating over the prospect of racing at Talladega, think again.

"You might be disappointed when the day is over, but to be nervous about it and disappointed about it and all that before you even go is probably a waste of time," said Kenseth, whose plate-track record the past two seasons is impeccable. "So I'm just going to look at it as an opportunity to go there, and hopefully we can be up front like we were in April, and hopefully we can figure out how to do the right things at the end."

Then there's Johnson, who earlier this year became the first driver to sweep both events at Daytona since 1982. "We're just going to show up and race," he said. "I've been able to finish all three (restrictor-plate races) so far this year, and I think all three in the top five. Hopefully, we can keep this streak alive."

No question, the place can take its toll. But it's also been a while since the Chase leader went to Talladega and left with his championship hopes seemingly in tatters. You have to go back to 2005, when Johnson led the standings by seven points over Rusty Wallace, and was involved in a pair of accidents -- including one where he banged into Elliott Sadler, sparking an eight-car crash that sent Michael Waltrip airborne. Johnson finished 31st, left 82 points down under the previous system, and completed the year in fifth place.

After that? Jeff Burton came and left as the points leader in 2006. Johnson came in six up on Gordon, and left nine down in 2007. In every season since, the driver on top of the standings going into Talladega has been the same one on top coming out. Not all of them won the championship, of course, but it was misfortunate at other tracks -- such as an engine failure at Martinsville, of all places, that doomed Burton seven years ago -- that ultimately scuttled their title hopes.

Now, that doesn't mean Talladega hasn't had its say. But if anything, it's been harder in recent years not on the drivers trying to maintain their position, but on the ones trying to make up ground. A crash that claimed then second-place Edwards in 2008 dropped him 60 points further behind Johnson, who cruised to his third straight title from there. The next year it was second-place Mark Martin whose car wound up hooked to a wrecker, helping Johnson to increase his advantage by 66 points and paving the way for title No. 4.

Greg Biffle keeps it real: "A lot of guys have their fingers crossed that maybe they get a little bit of a break in the points there," he said, "but you certainly can't count on anything happening."

Certainly not. No doubt, the place has a bite, as Johnson discovered in 2005. The next season he was spun by eventual winner Brian Vickers on the final lap, which plunged him into a deep hole and necessitated a historic comeback to secure his first title. And due to its sheer size, Talladega can wreak havoc due to seemingly innocuous reasons -- Gordon lost the points lead there during the inaugural Chase in 2004 when he overshot the pit road entrance, and the extra trip around led to a 19th-place result. The new points leader that day was Kurt Busch, who would go on to win the title.

Indeed, Talladega is still a track where the Big One can lurk around every corner, where drivers know their fate is not entirely in their own hands. It's still home to arguably the three most heart-stopping hours in NASCAR, still a venue capable of making drivers glad they finished no matter where they did. But let's not undersell the competitors here -- the best drivers and teams are the best for a reason, and capable of using strategy and smarts to counteract whatever voodoo Talladega is trying to work up.

Can the track be a wild card? Without question. But if the past few years are any indication, it can also be an unlikely ace up the points leader's sleeve.

"Most people ... go there really tentative, and make plans and try to hang in the back and try to do all this stuff and try to minimize the damage," Kenseth said. "I think that's good, because I really try to approach it the opposite. I try to approach it as an opportunity."

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