Thursday, October 4, 2012

Junior among those who are desperate at 'Dega

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Talladega Sunday afternoon and with this being the fourth race in the Chase for the Championship, the sport's 10-race version of the playoffs, this will be a make or break race for many of the title contenders.
At the moment, it's a three-driver race for the title with Brad Keselowski leading, Jimmie Johnson five points behind and Denny Hamlin 16 points back. As for the rest of the field, they will need at least a top five finish, or for Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin to get wiped out in accidents, for things to change. And that's certainly not an impossibility at a restrictor plate track like Talladega.
There are two schools of thought on how and where to run at Talladega, where cars go at about 200 mph in a tight packs with no need to slow down for the corners.
Some choose to sit in the back of the pack to try and avoid the so-called "big one" accident. Other choose to run up front and to try and avoid the so-called "big one" accident.
That means if you subtract lets say the front four, and then maybe the back four, there are about 30 other drivers in the middle (yes, we're throwing out the start-and-parkers). And that's where trouble usually starts because no one likes the feeling of being stuck in traffic, even if it going nearly 200 mph.
If you hear drivers talking about avoiding trouble this weekend there's a good reason for it. They've all pretty much been bit by accidents at restrictor plate tracks that were out of everyone's control at one point or another in their careers.
That brings us to the drivers sitting in the fourth through seventh positions in the standings. This is their chance to get back into the title hunt and be legitimate threats for the crown. Right now, Clint Bowyer is fourth in points, 25 behind Keselowski, Tony Stewart is fifth and Kasey Kahne sixth each 32 behind, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is seventh 39 behind.
In recent retstrictor plate races Bowyer has been on top, with an average finish of 11.9, which includes two wins at Talladega. Having success on restrictor plate tracks is a bit tricky and a driver has to have a kind of sixth sense of where and when to go in tight traffic at high speeds.. Bowyer seems to have discovered that.
While Stewart hasn't been good in recent restrictor races recently, his history tells us he can be a factor, too. He has five wins on restrictor plate tracks in his career, including nine top-five finishes in 27 races at Talladega. He's always a potential winner at plate races.
The same cannot be said about Kahne. In 35 restrictor plate races, he has no wins and just five top five finishes. If he wants to contend for the title, Sunday would be a good time for him to break through.
And that, of course, brings us to Earnhardt Jr. There may be no better place for him to win than Talladega. Once considered the master of restrictor plate tracks just like his late father, Junior has two wins at Daytona and five Talladega. But since the 2010 season, he has an average finish of 18th at Talladega and his last win there was the fall race in 2004. So, if Junior wants to be a contender, he's going to have to recapture some of the early 2000s magic.
Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin don't need magical runs to stay in contention. They can play it a bit conservatively, hang around until the end, and try to get a top 10 finish. But for Bowyer, Stewart, Kahne and Earnhardt Jr.,  it's go time. There's no waiting around to see how things workout. They need to show and know they are contenders to win early in Sunday's race.  They simply can't afford to get stuck in the middle of a traffic jam and find themselves as victims in the "big one."
And Sunday may well be their last one big chance at the title for 2012.

It's Week 4 of the Chase, and really, as mentioned above, it's do or die for several drivers.  So with that in mind, here's a look at this week's picks for the 2 p.m. race at Talladega to be shown on ESPN.
1. Clint Bowyer. He's won the last two fall races at Talladega and he's under pressure to get a win to get back into the title hunt.
2. Brad Keselowski. The bad news for the rest of the Chasers is that Keselowski, and the soon-be-extinct Penske Dodge's have been strong at Talladega for a while, including Keselowski winning the spring race there this year.
3. Tony Stewart. He's usually good at the plate tracks and if the defending champion wants to add a fourth title to his resume, he'll likely need a win Sunday to get back in the race.
4. Kevin Harvick. It's almost forgotten that he is in the Chase, but he shouldn't be forgotten at Talladega. In his last five races there, he has a win and an average finish of 13th.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. OK, I'l make this pick, even if takes some proverbial arm twisting. Junior has had a nice year, but now he needs to learn to win again. And while he does have fives wins at Talledaga, he last went to Victory Lane there eight years ago. It would be a great confidence boost for him and his team to win Sunday.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Trevor Bayne. OK, i understand all the factors against him, mainly youth and only running a partial schedule this year. But just have a pure gut feeling that the 2011 Daytona 500 champion will do well Sunday. 
Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 3 of the Chase at Dover.
Jimmie Johnson - 4th. He was strong all day and may have had the best car at the end, but had to go to into fuel conservation mode in the final 30 laps.
Matt Kenseth  - 35th. He was struggling a bit when he had a piece break on the rear of his car.
Greg Biffle - 16th. He was hanging in there, but an unscheduled stop for a bad tire,  became a four-tire stop and then resulted in Biffle berating crew chief Matt Puccia on the radio. So, not his best day either.
Kyle Busch - 7th. Not to defend all of his misgivings over the years, but if there was anybody who deserved to be mad for not winning Sunday it was Busch. He led 302 laps, then had to come in for a late fuel stop that put him a lap down.
Jeff Gordon - 2nd. He was solid all day, then had enough fuel to make it to the end and almost steal a win.
Here's a look at my results after 29 races and 145 picks.
15  wins
48 top fives
68 top 10s
Grade for the week: B. OK, I know, no winner here, but either Busch or Johnson would have won if not for fuel issues, so really, felt good about these picks after the fact.
One last thing: With his win at Dover last week, Brad Keselowski is the third Penske driver to win at least five races in a season. The others are Rusty Wallace with 10 in 1993, eight 1994 and five in 1996 and Ryan Newman with in 2003.

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