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Chasers Avoid Talladega “Big One”

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The top contenders in the Sprint Cup Chase can now breathe a big sigh of relief. All of them avoided the dreaded Talladega “Big One” this past weekend. In fact, there really was no big crash, only a small two car crash that came out just after the dropping of the white flag, which ruined Dale Earnhardt, Jr having a shot to blow past race leader Jamie McMurray to take the checkers. Once the white flag falls, there is no chance for a green-white-checker finish and the leader at the point the yellow comes out wins the race because the field is frozen at that point.

But other than the not-so-exciting finish, the race itself was a good one. In typical restrictor plate racing fashion, the cars in the back raced their way up front and vice versa as every car had a shot at this. If you were following guys like Jeff Gordon or Kevin Harvick, you saw them run well in the back of the pack most of the day, then saw them charge toward the front in the latter stages. In Gordon’s case, he was near the front with about 20 to go then got shuffled all the way back to 27th with just a few laps remaining. By the end of the day he had worked his way back up to 14th. Talladega really is like a football game. It is all about where you are when the time runs out, or in this case laps.

Checking the standings with four races to go we see that it is down to two drivers at this point. Jimmie Johnson leads Matt Kenseth by four points going into this week’s race at Martinsville Speedway. That is more bad news for Kenseth as Martinsville is a track that Johnson and his Hendrick teammates practically own.

Johnson has won at Martinsville eight times including the last two races there. Jeff Gordon has won seven times at the half mile track and Matt Kenseth has never won there. So this could be a big week for Johnson as he goes for his sixth Sprint Cup Championship. If he gets it, he will need only one more to tie Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty atop the all time Sprint Cup Champions list. Two more and he will stand alone.

Qualifying at Martinsville will be worth watching as well. Johnson won the last two races there from the pole position. Only three times in the last 15 races has the winner come from outside the top ten starters. Two of those belong to Denny Hamlin, who seems to have Martinsville figured out too. He has won there four times and he is a teammate of Kenseth. So that may work in Matt’s favor.

Really what Kenseth needs to do is keep Johnson close in this race. Pit when he pits. Try and guess with him on how many tires to take. Keep in his rear view mirror. The 48 is most likely going to win the race, so staying on his bumper should get a good finish. If Matt can stay within 10 to 15 points after this one is over, he is still in the hunt. What he cannot afford is to finish in 24th while Johnson wins. Because he will likely get the point for most laps led too. That would set him way back.

After Martinsville, all we have left is Texas, Phoenix and Miami to go. Texas is one of those places where it is anybody’s race. It’s not quite Talladega in that sense, but it is one where the standings could get shuffled a bit and perhaps let a lurking Kyle Busch, Gordon or Kevin Harvick back in the Chase. So keep an eye out for them this week as well.

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