CHARLOTTE, NC (David Scott/The Charlotte Observer) -
As NASCAR’s Chase competitors prepare for Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, one thought is never far from their minds.
Talladega is next.
The idea that the third and final race of the Chase’s second round comes next Sunday at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway is a daunting one for those drivers not yet automatically qualified for the round of eight.
And that’s everybody right now, except for Jimmie Johnson, who won last weekend at Charlotte and grabbed a spot in the final eight.
“I definitely envy Jimmie right now,” said Carl Edwards, who is sixth in points and – for now – inside the cut line to advance. “I know he’s going to be on his bike a bunch, relaxing and having a good time the next two weeks. We want to be able to do that going to Talladega.”
At 2.66 miles, Talladega is NASCAR’s biggest track. The nature of its surface and banking make it the circuit’s fastest. Combine all that and Talladega becomes the sport’s most treacherous and unpredictable venue, famous for the inevitable “big one,” a wreck that collects several cars often at a critical time.
And that’s why the 11 other drivers still in contention for the Chase look at Kansas as such an important race for their chances of advancing to the next round. Pinning their hopes on winning – much less even finishing the race – at Talladega isn’t something they want to do.
“When you get to those cutoff races or you’re at Talladega in a cutoff round and you’re hovering around the bubble – it’s a very stressful weekend,” said Martin Truex Jr., who easily advanced to the second round by virtue of first-round victories at Chicagoland and Dover.
But after finishing 13th last week at Charlotte – the first race of the second round – Truex finds himself seventh in points and perilously close to that Chase “bubble” of which he speaks.
“It’s not a must-win, obviously,” Truex said of Kansas. “We’re in decent shape. But Talladega you just never know. You could very easily finish 40th there – anybody could. You hope for the best. But there are no guarantees.”
The Kansas race has had its share of drama, as well. Last season, Joey Logano bumped race-leader Matt Kenseth out of the way to win, a move that led to retaliation from Kenseth two weeks later at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
Logano had already won at Charlotte in the first race of the second round, so he was still stress-free heading to Talladega. But he won again in Alabama the following week, sweeping all three second-round races. He’s not in nearly as strong shape this season. He finished 36th at Charlotte last week and is 11th in the standings.
Johnson, a fitness buff who often rides his bicycle during down time on race weekends, finds himself in excellent position to continue pursuit of his seventh Cup title (which would tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most in history). After winning two of the first five races of this season, he went a career-long 24 races before winning again at Charlotte last week.
“You just can’t take for granted how difficult it is to win in our sport,” Johnson said.
That’s why winning Sunday at Kansas is so important.
“The icing on the cake would be no pressure at Talladega,” Edwards said.