It stood out like the bright lights of Broadway.
Soon after word of NASCAR’s new Chase for the Sprint Cup format – which included eliminations after the third, sixth and ninth race of the Chase – began to leak out in January, fans and drivers eyed an ominous prospect.
The wild, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous fall race at Talladega Superspeedway would host one of the Chase’s elimination races.
For several drivers, the high banks and close pack-racing of Talladega offer a final hope of continuing to compete for the series championship.
“I always knew Talladega was out there. It has always been lurking,” said six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, one of the drivers for which Talladega holds a last chance to win the title.
“It’s just hiding out there waiting for us.”
If Talladega was hiding, it was hiding in plain sight.
NASCAR’s biggest superspeedway has a history of producing unexpected winners, dating to its original race in 1969 won by Richard Brickhouse (the only win of his career).
Just last season, Jamie McMurray, not among the drivers competing in the Chase, won this race.
When the original Chase format debuted in 2004, drivers quickly labeled the fall race at Talladega a “wild card,” which had to be survived without incident to have a chance at winning the championship.
That philosophy still holds entering Sunday’s Geico 500 but with more on the line than ever before.
No Cup champion has ever won Talladega’s Chase race during a title season. But if drivers like Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth – the four most likely to be eliminated from title contention based on their current points position – are to win the championship this season, that statistic will likely need to change.
“Staying out of the ‘big one,’ the crash that takes out so many cars, is crucial to having success at Talladega,” said Jeff Gordon, who sits sixth in points and must avoid a terrible finish to remain in title contention.
“So many strategies – like staying in front or staying in the back – can be used during the race; however, there’s no perfect strategy. You just have to hope your car is in one piece at the end of the race.”
That has been difficult in recent years for all 12 drivers still in the Chase.
Ten of them – Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Gordon, Harvick, Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Kenseth, Keselowski, Logano and Ryan Newman – have wrecked at Talladega at least once since the spring of 2010.
The other two, Earnhardt and Hamlin, haven’t been immune. Earnhardt was in a crash at Talladega in the fall race in 2010. He returned to the track but finished 39th, 25 laps down.
And in the 2013 spring race at Talladega, Hamlin gave way to a relief driver, Brian Vickers, after 23 laps. Vickers, in Hamlin’s car, was part of a 16-car accident 20 laps later. The car returned to the track, with Vickers still at the wheel, and was running at the end, 54 laps down.
Logano and Harvick are the only two drivers already locked in to the third round of the Chase thanks to their respective victories at Kansas and Charlotte the past two weeks.
For everyone else still in the hunt, anything is possible – and should be expected.
“I don’t think there is more pressure; I think there are more questions,” said Newman, who despite not having a win sits in excellent position to advance to Round 3 with a solid finish Sunday.
“We saw some guys at Kansas and Charlotte who had some misfortune that are guys who don’t usually have issues like (Earnhardt), (Keselowski) and (Johnson). Those guys have their work cut out for them.
“Talladega is left and you have three guys in trouble.”
Johnson, Earnhardt and Keselowski have 11 wins among them and have played a role in some of this season’s biggest moments, beginning with Earnhardt’s victory in the season opening Daytona 500.
None likely fathomed the possibility their chances at a championship would be left to the outcome in a restrictor-plate race.
The importance of avoiding that possibility was not lost on last weekend’s race winner, Harvick, who seemed to relish the fact he would continue to advance in the Chase regardless of what transpires at Talladega. He even jokingly considered not participating.
Yet even drivers like Logano and Harvick, with seemingly nothing to gain, plan to be in the hunt for victory – adding another layer of unpredictability.
“It’s still in my opinion very important to try and win just for the fact that you keep someone else from winning,” Harvick explained. “Obviously there are some people who are in a pretty vulnerable spot unless they win.
“Being aggressive, trying to lead laps, taking those points away, winning the race and not allow that automatic bid going forward is really the main goal.”