Predicting what will happen at Talladega is an exercise in futility. Unless it’s a prediction that there will be a winner of the race, a driver that will finish last, there will be a crash (or two) and that teams will have to make pit stops.
Those predictions will be accurate. OK, maybe not the crash prediction. There have been two caution-free races at Talladega, though they happened in 1997 and 2001.
Nevertheless, we’re going to take a shot at guessing who the eight drivers advancing to the Chase’s third round after Talladega will be. Let’s get to it after a refresher on the points standings.
1. Jimmie Johnson – Won at Charlotte
2. Kevin Harvick – Won at Kansas
3. Matt Kenseth, 3,074
4. Kyle Busch, 3,072
5. Carl Edwards, 3,069
6. Kurt Busch, 3,062
7. Martin Truex Jr., 3,058
8. Joey Logano, 3,045
9. Austin Dillon, 3,045
10. Denny Hamlin, 3,039
11. Brad Keselowski, 3,038
12. Chase Elliott, 3,020
HEADING TO THE THIRD ROUND NO MATTER WHAT
Harvick and Johnson could simply turn a lap and go to the garage if they wanted. Given it’s Talladega, that’s probably the safest strategy. But they’ll run the race and try to prevent anyone other than their teammates from advancing to the third round with a win.
LIKELY GOING TO THE THIRD ROUND
This is where we’ll slot the Joe Gibbs Racing trio of Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Edwards. Remember Kenseth’s flip at Talladega this spring? He still finished 23rd, so he’s got a really good shot of advancing to the third round even if he’s in a really big crash.
Busch does too, though he won’t want to be reminded of the time he lost a big points cushion in 2014 when he was caught up in a wreck on the backstretch. Edwards is hoping that getting through to the third round is payback from the time he went flying into the fence in 2009.
THE ODDS ARE GOOD BUT NO GUARANTEE
Kurt Busch has finished in the top 12 in four-straight starts at Talladega. If he keeps that up, he’s moving on. But talking about finish streaks at Talladega is kind of ridiculous. Case in point: In an eight-race span from 2010-2014, Busch finished 30th or worse five times with a best finish of 18th (twice).
Truex will undoubtedly have a strong car, but this has been a season where he’s excelled despite a lot of things going wrong. Talladega is a hard place to continue a trend like that. It would be cruel, but oh-so-Truex-in-2016 if he got caught up in an early crash.
GET A GOOD FINISH AND HOPE YOU’RE AHEAD OF EVERYONE ELSE AROUND YOU
This is the most crowded category. Logano, Dillon, Hamlin and Keselowski all control their own destinies. A win gets them into the third round.
Logano and Dillon have a much bigger cushion. Each can finish in the top five and still advance as long as the other doesn’t finish ahead. Oh, and that Hamlin and Keselowski don’t win the race.
Hamlin and Keselowski don’t have to win either. Their points gap is such that a top-10 and some misfortune for other Chasers is a conceivable scenario for advancement. Hamlin last won at Talladega in the spring of 2014 while Keselowski has four wins at the track, most recently in May.
JUST WIN, BABY
Elliott’s not in a win-or-go-home scenario mathematically. But he is realistically. 25 points isn’t impossible to make up at Talladega, but making up 25 points and passing four other drivers is almost impossible. Will Johnson be his wingman as much as possible?
WHO (WE THINK) IS IN
In addition to Johnson and Harvick, we’re going with Kenseth, Edwards, the Busch brothers, Logano and … Keselowski. That means Truex Jr. is dropped from the top eight, while Dillon, Hamlin (our pre-Chase pick for the title) and Elliott don’t make it.
But that’s just an early prediction. It’s probably going to be wrong. We’ll give you a better idea of who we think will be in the third round after Sunday’s race.
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