NASCAR visits Talladega Superspeedway, a track where chaos and mayhem combine to create one of the wildest races of the season, on Sunday. Here is a look at the storylines and drivers to watch for during Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 500.
Can Jimmie Johnson actually finish a restrictor-plate race?
Restrictor-plate racing has long been a weakness for Jimmie Johnson, who a year ago finished 42nd, 35th, 36th and 17th, respectively, in the four races at Daytona and Talladega.
Accordingly, Johnson has modified his strategy for plate races. He is no longer content to ride around the back in hopes of avoiding the "big one," then charge in the latter stages with hopes of snagging a respectable finish.
This change in philosophy has proved overwhelmingly successful. Johnson opened the year with a victory in the Daytona 500, followed by an eighth-place finish in the spring Talladega before a win from the pole when the series returned to Daytona for its annual July event.
Locked into a fierce competition with Matt Kenseth for the championship that has him just four points out of the lead with five races to go, Johnson is going to need another strong run Sunday if he wishes to keep pace in the standings.
Talladega is a game-changer
No track in the chase is more of a wildcard than Talladega, where trouble lurks around every corner and can jumble the point standings like no other. As Kenseth and Johnson have separated themselves from the rest of the Chase field, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch -- the drivers on the fringes of contention -- see Talladega as their opportunity to play catch-up.
Specifically, Harvick, Gordon and Busch need a bit of misfortune to befall Kenseth and Johnson, while at the same time posting solid enough times to close ground.
"I think we recognize where we are in the points and that this could be a turning point for us," Gordon said. "We need to come out of here with a pretty solid finish and make up some of those points that we're behind right now and that this is a track that we can do it at."
When the checkered flag waves Sunday, there will be clear an obvious division between the title contenders and the non-contenders. If Kenseth and/or Johnson can escape Talladega with a top-10, then the championship will be theirs to lose, and if not, it will be a wide-open affair over the next four weeks.
"I certainly realize that we're the point leader and pretty much pretty close to being tied with the 48 (Johnson) and if you have a bad week any week that's going to hurt," Kenseth said. "And your chances of having a bad race here are probably a little bit higher than other tracks because you can get caught up in stuff."
A return to form for Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
There was a time when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was viewed as "the man" anytime the Cup Series rolled into a restrictor-plate track. Although he has come close -- including a runner-up finish in this year's Daytona 500 -- the fact is Earnhardt has not won a plate race since 2004.
"You've got to make all the right decisions in the draft to put yourself in position to win," Earnhardt said. "And I haven't been doing that to win these races here, but my confidence and my determination has not changed a bit. I think you've got to adapt and I don't think I've adapted as well as I've needed to, to the way this package needs to be ran."
Earnhardt, however, is optimistic and would cherish another victory at the track he considers one of his personal favorites.
"I'm going to stay open minded to that and try to do a good job this weekend of putting the car where it needs to be and making better decisions that put me in position to have a shot at it," he said. "I just want to have a shot at it."
1. Jimmie Johnson
No driver has had more success this season in plate races than Johnson, who owns a pair of wins and an eighth-place finish in three starts. His game plan of running up front could be the difference maker in avoiding the "big one."
2. Matt Kenseth
He may not have the victories like his championship counterpart, but it's hard to ignore the dominance Kenseth has shown this year at Daytona and Talladega. He led the most laps in the Daytona 500 before an engine failure sidelined him, and he led 142 of 192 laps in the May Talladega race.
3. Clint Bowyer
A two-time Talladega winner who doesn't hide his enjoyment of restrictor-plate racing is as good a pick as any in a race where just about anyone is a viable contender.