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No track is more of a Chase game-changer than Talladega

Due to Talladega’s penchant for volatility, Sunday’s race will have a significant impact on the championship.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Were it any other Chase for the Sprint Cup elimination race, Kyle Busch would be feeling fairly secure about proceeding to the semifinal round of NASCAR's playoffs. In fact, with the respective points-cushion he holds, he would be excused if he didn't already start looking ahead to the subsequent three-race segment that begins next week.

Except there is nothing normal about Sunday's Round 2 elimination race at Talladega Superspeedway. It is where no points lead is safe and unpredictability reigns. And it is why the Joe Gibbs Racing driver cannot feel confident about his odds to advance even though he has a 27-point buffer over the final transfer position.

Just how tenuous a spot he sits in is a feeling Busch knows firsthand. In 2014, the first year NASCAR incorporated a knockout format to crown its champion, he rolled into Talladega with a 26-point lead over ninth-ranked Matt Kenseth, the first driver on the wrong side of the cut line.

Outwardly, Busch should've felt relatively confident. Leave the Alabama track with the car intact, and a decent finish and he would be one of eight drivers filling out the third round bracket.

To enhance his chances, Busch avoided running in the large pack that forms due to the horsepower-sapping restrictor plates NASCAR mandates at Talladega, all in an effort to better provide an avenue of escape when the inevitable "Big One" happened.

It didn't matter.

Despite being well behind when a multi-car accident broke out, Busch found himself collected when rookie Austin Dillon couldn't slow down in time and tagged Busch's rear bumper, sending him crashing. Busch finished 40th, falling seven points short of making the next round.

After the race concluded Busch climbed out of his battered No. 18 car, never removed his helmet and walked briskly to the garage, saying nothing. Two years later he remains fully cognizant of how Talladega can impact the Chase.

"You never can have any comfort and you do what you need to do in order to transfer through," Busch said Sunday following a fifth-place finish at Kansas Speedway. "It's all about the racing gods in that story in Talladega."

And few places are the racing gods crueler than at Talladega.

Just ask Denny Hamlin, who can relate to Busch's experience of having Talladega turn what would've been an advantageous position any other week into just another example of how quickly one's title hopes can go sour at NASCAR's most menacing track.

Similar to Busch, a JGR teammate, Hamlin two years ago had a points cushion (+18) that seemingly offered some protection should misfortune strike. However, like Busch, Hamlin learned Talladega offers assurances to no one except those fortunate to win the preceding two Chase races, therefore guaranteeing themselves promotion to the next round.

The catalyst for Hamlin's demise was a faulty roof hatch -- an optional safety component teams can utilize at Talladega and its sister restrictor-plate track, Daytona International Speedway -- that wouldn't stay fastened. Later JGR officials determined it wasn't installed properly. Nonetheless, when it repeatedly came ajar during green flag conditions, Hamlin had to make numerous green flag pit stops. He fell multiple laps down and ended the day 37th, eight points short of qualifying.

With successive disappointing races to begin Round 2, Hamlin's current predicament coming into Talladega is considerably different than 2015. He had an engine expire while running second with 26 laps remaining at Charlotte Motor Speedway, then had a litany of things go awry at Kansas. Among the miscues: a broken splitter, a fender-bender with Brad Keselowski that damaged the repaired splitter, and three pit road penalties late that prompted Hamlin to scream on the radio: "Get our (expletive) head out of our asses. Come on!"

Six points behind, Hamlin doesn't necessarily need a win on Sunday, but he has no margin of error. And as demonstrated by recent events, the No. 11 team is developing a deserved reputation for being mistake prone at inopportune times.

"I've got confidence I can win every single week on the race track," Hamlin said. "It's just -- this is a team sport and you've got to have every facet of the car and the team all put together and we've just got to execute."

But even if a team executes perfectly, Talladega is still Talladega. And of the dozen remaining title-eligibles, only Charlotte winner Jimmie Johnson and Kansas winner Kevin Harvick can race carefree. Regardless of where they finish, they're locked into the semifinal round.

"There are so many more things that can happen at Talladega with the odds of getting into an accident way higher," Harvick said. "They are usually big accidents and take out multiple cars. Talladega is the one you don't want to have to deal with."

Luckily for Harvick, he doesn't have to worry. Neither does Johnson.

As for the other 10 Chasers, Talladega brings nothing but high anxiety.