Talladega is a championship game-changer

USA TODAY Sports

No Chase race shapes the championship more than Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR’s biggest, fastest and most daunting track.

If there is one track or one race that can shake up the Chase for the Sprint Cup undoubtedly it is Talladega Superspeedway, which Sunday will host the Camping World RV Sales 500.

Wildcard is the word most often used by drivers to describe Talladega, a track where pack racing is commonplace and the "big one" -- an accident often involving 10 or cars -- is ominously present every lap.

"You've just got to go race and cross your fingers and go for it. You just hope that Lady Luck is on your side and that you make it through"-Jimmie Johnson

Some drivers embrace the challenges of restrictor-plate racing. Then there are others, who decry what they feel is NASCAR's version of the lottery, where their fate is not determined by their actions, but those around them.

For Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, the two guys atop the Sprint Cup standings, Sunday represents a pivotal race in each's quest to win the championship.

"When you come in with a pretty good gap on the competition like with what Jimmie and Matt have, the last thing you want to see on the schedule is Talladega," Gordon said Friday. "Because you just know what the risk and the chances are of getting caught up in something; and that it can be completely out of your control."

With five of 10 Chase races complete, Kenseth leads Johnson by a mere four points. However, the gap to third-place Kevin Harvick is 29 points, while Jeff Gordon, fourth overall, is 36 points behind. Neither margin is insurmountable, but if either is to make a title run they will need Kenseth and Johnson to stumble somewhere over the next five weeks.

And there is no likelier place for that to occur than Talladega.

"For those guys, they have more to lose than the rest of us do," Gordon said. "We're all trying to play catch-up and just hoping that we can come out of here and be unscathed and go on. And if we don't, then we're probably not going to win the championship. But we're in a position right where unless something drastic happens over the next few weeks, we probably don't have a shot at it anyway."

In years past the prevailing strategy to avoid trouble at Talladega would be for a championship challenger to run near the back of the field for the majority of the afternoon. Then, with a handful of laps remaining, charge their way to the front and, if all goes to plan, leave with a top-10 finish.

It was a strategy utilized successfully by Johnson en route to five consecutive championships from 2006-10.

But NASCAR's new Gen-6 Car has made lagging at the rear no longer a viable option. As increased speeds along with a different aero package has made it easier for a driver to lose the draft, and thus their ability to maneuver to the front when deemed necessary.

"You can't tandem (draft) anymore because of the water temperature issues that you will have," said David Ragan, who won at Talladega in May. "You can't make efficient passes very quick. The track is in great shape here and we can run three- and four-wide and sometimes there is just no room on the race track. Even if you have a great run, or have some momentum you can't do anything with it because there is someone directly in your path. I think a combination of two or three of those things prevents guys from being conservative all day long."

Running the duration of the race near the front is not an issue for Kenseth. He has long been a believer that the best strategy to avoid the "big one" is to be ahead of the carnage and not behind it; a game plan that has proven to be more than effective.

In his last three starts at Talladega, Kenseth has left with top-10s each time, including a win in this race a year ago. And in February in the Daytona 500, Kenseth led a race-high 86 laps before an engine failure ended his bid.

"I've always just liked to go race," Kenseth said. "Sometimes that plan can change if your car is not fast or you feel uncomfortable where you're at and there's cars all over, all that kind of stuff, but I think I've been pretty spoiled the last few plate races when we led a lot of laps here in the spring and that's probably in my opinion the safest place."

One driver Kenseth can expect to see up front with him Sunday is his championship counterpart.

Having modified his approach to plate racing, Johnson no longer drops to the rear. Instead, he has adapted the same philosophy as Kenseth and the results have paid dividends, sweeping both Daytona races this season and finished fifth at Talladega in the spring.

"With this rules package, riding is not the things to do, you'll never get back to the front," Johnson said last week at Charlotte. "You've just got to go race and cross your fingers and go for it. You just hope that Lady Luck is on your side and that you make it through.

"We're just going to show up and race. 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."

More from SB Nation:

Complete coverage of the 2013 Sprint Cup Chase

Kurt Busch's "Talladega Nights" paint scheme

NASCAR power rankings: Johnson, Kenseth create distance

2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule released

The good times, hard life and shocking death of Dick Trickle

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