"Nobody's out of it until we get through Talladega."
That has been the prevailing sentiment throughout the opening stages of the Chase for the 2012 Sprint Cup - and throughout the playoff format's nine-year history. A rough start to the Chase, such as the ones experienced by Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, and regular-season point leader Greg Biffle, is not a death sentence until 500 miles around NASCAR's biggest, baddest track are complete. The pulse might be thready, but it can be resurrected if the right cards fall.
It's hard to gain points, but it's plenty easy to lose them, and few venues provide an easier opportunity to throw away those valuable championship markers than Talladega. Of course, the most famous way to give up points is to get wrapped up in the notorious "Big One," the multi-car accident that wraps up varying numbers of cars. Last year's biggest wreck ruined the title hopes for Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. Neither one had anything to do with the cause of the wreck - Marcos Ambrose inadvertently turned then-teammate A.J. Allmendinger as they raced through the tri-oval - but they were in the right place at the right time to end up with a beaten-up stock car and dashed title hopes.
You can lose a ton of points without losing a race car, however. The big pack-drafting nature of racing at Talladega is such that you can be leading one lap and be running in the 20s on the subsequent lap. Positions are shuffled constantly from start to finish. Drivers will attempt to time their last charge towards the front of the pack just right so that they make it right at the checkered flag and - with the race over, obviously - can't lose anymore spots. Unfortunately - or fortunately, depending on what style of racing fan you are - when 30-plus drivers are trying to charge to the front at the same time, chaos usually ensues.
Drivers don't control their own destiny at Talladega. As stated above, the crash that knocked Busch and Harvick out of title contention was started by two teammates who weren't even close to being in the championship picture. To make a run to the front, meanwhile, you need help - a drafting partner or partners - to overcome the fact that, with restrictor plates, the cars all run the same speed and can't break away from one another. That creates an unnerving situation that many drivers have publicly stated they could do without.
The fans love it, however. The fact that all hell can break loose at any given moment over the course of 188 laps and that a driver can be leading down the backstretch on that 188th lap and find himself barely inside the top-10 at the checkered flag makes Talladega the most exciting, edge-of-our-seat venue for stock car racing enthusiasts.
This story originally appeared on SB Nation Atlanta. To read more from SB Nation Atlanta, click here.