High-Speed Talladega Provides Big Risk, Reward For Chase Drivers
Brad Keselowski may not be a “Brickyard Legend” yet in his career, but he drives for one. Keselowski’s team owner is Roger Penske, the winningest team owner in Indianapolis 500 history with 15 victories in the world’s biggest race. But in NASCAR, Penske’s drivers have never won the Brickyard 400 or the NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
Keselowski is attempting to change that this season as he enters the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway with the Cup points lead. He scored his second Chase victory out of the first three races last Sunday at Dover.
“There are seven races to go,” Keselowski said. “It feels great to win. I'm so proud of my team. But I can't state loudly enough how much longer this battle is. It's very tempting, whether it's the media or the teams themselves, to get in a comfort zone of saying, such and such has control of this Chase. But there's a reason why it's 10 rounds. We're not even halfway. We're three rounds in. By no means do I feel like we're the favorite. Certainly, we're not the underdog at this point. But I think there's so much racing to go, so many opportunities for things to go wrong or right for anyone out there. It's way too early to point those fingers and say those things. My perspective is we’ve got a lot more racing to go. Let's just let the racing play out and go from there.”
Keselowski’s record at Talladega is very impressive with two wins, three top-five and five top-10 finishes in just seven starts. He finished fourth in this race last October and drove to victory here in April.
A major reason why Keselowski is atop the standings is crew chief Paul Wolfe, the quiet, understated but confident leader of the No. 2 Dodge crew.
“Honestly, I had a great feeling about Dover all week,” Wolfe said. “I know a lot people expected us to struggle, just by looking on paper at our average finish. That’s not always the best way to judge this Miller Lite Dodge team. I really don’t feel like we have any weaknesses on our team. In our two Chase wins, we’ve won on pure speed and we won on fuel mileage. To me, that’s covering all of your bases. Now we get to part of the schedule where I think our strengths will shine. I love racing at Talladega. We have a lot of confidence going back there as the winner of the spring race. There is still a lot of racing left to go in this Chase, but I like our position in the standings, for sure.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the guys on the Miller Lite Dodge for the work they’ve put in all year, but especially over the first three races in the Chase. We’ve taken tracks that were perceived weaknesses and shown that they are anything but that. Like Brad has said, there is a lot of racing left in this Chase, but we’re now getting to a part of the schedule where we feel like we can extend the points lead. It starts this weekend at Talladega. It’s obviously a great track for Brad. Penske Racing, as a group, has been very competitive on the restrictor-plate tracks this season. I think we’ve learned a few things since then that will make us even more competitive this weekend.”
While Keselowski has the look of a driver who may one day become a “Brickyard Legend,” all of the Chase drivers who have won at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Cup Series are in the top 10 in the Chase.
This is important because the eventual Cup champion has finished in the top 10 in seven of the last eight Chase races at Talladega. However, a driver not in the Chase has won four of the last eight Chase races at Talladega.
While the race victory may go to a non-Chaser, it is vital for Chase drivers to stay out of the “Big One” – the inevitable pileup bred by restrictor-plate racing – and try to at least bring the car home in one piece and in the top 10.
Four-time Brickyard winner and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is just five points behind Keselowski for the Cup lead. At Talladega, he has two wins, five top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 21 starts. He was 26th here last October and 35th earlier this year.
“Well, as you can probably see from our finishes this year, we haven’t had a lot of luck at the restrictor-plate tracks,” Johnson said. “It definitely is the one track in the Chase I’ve kind of been a little concerned about. There are a lot of great tracks for the 48 coming up in the Chase, but this one is definitely one where anything can happen. There are so many things that are out of your control. There is a lot of room on this track to move around though, obviously, and try things. I think the odds are in our favor to be able to finish one of these restrictor-plate races this year. At least I hope so.”
Toyota driver Denny Hamlin is third in the Chase, 16 out of the lead followed by another Toyota driver, Clint Bowyer, who is 25 points out.
Two-time Brickyard winner and three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart is the next “Brickyard Legend” in the standings. Stewart, from Columbus, Ind., is fifth, 32 behind Keselowski.
“We’re looking at it as an opportunity to gain some points and positions,” Stewart said. “Every time you’re at Talladega, you try to take care of yourself and your equipment by not getting yourself in compromising positions that are going to take you out of an opportunity to get you to the end of the race. For me, it’s no different whether the race is in April during the regular season or in October when I’m in the Chase.”
Stewart’s Talladega record includes one win, ninth top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 27 starts. He was seventh last October and 24th this past April.
Former Indianapolis resident and former United States Auto Club (USAC) star Kasey Kahne is sixth in the Chase, 32 out of the lead. Kahne has no wins, three top-five and four top-10 finishes in 17 starts at Talladega. He was sixth in October 2011 and fourth in April of this year.
“Talladega is really the biggest wild card in the Chase (for the NASCAR Sprint Cup),” Kahne said. “Almost everyone has a shot at the win, but you can be out of running early, too. We’re going into the weekend with a couple of good superspeedway finishes this year, and the guys at the shop put together awesome restrictor-plate cars. If we can stay out of trouble, we should have a solid day.”
NASCAR’s fan favorite is eighth in the Chase, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. always is a threat to win at Talladega. He won four in a row from 2001-03 and has five wins, nine top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 25 starts. He was 25th last October and ninth in April. Earnhardt is seventh in the standings, 39 out of the lead.
“We've rode around and played it pretty conservative before,” Earnhardt said. “That hasn't really worked out. Last couple times we've been racing just as hard as we can race, and I think that's just about what we'll do this time.”
Another Toyota driver, Martin Truex Jr., is eighth in the Chase. He is followed by 2003 Brickyard 400 winner Kevin Harvick, who is ninth in the Chase, 46 points out of first place. At Talladega, Harvick has one win, six top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 23 starts. He was 32nd last October and 25th in April.
“I go to Talladega with the approach that you have a 50-50 chance when you get there,” Harvick said. “You’re either going to have a great day because you finished or you’re going to have a torn-up race car. I’ve gone with that mentality since my first race at Talladega. It’s just one of those racetracks where you really don’t have any expectations, and you just go out and run as hard as you can because there are so many things out of your control.
“I love this style of racing. I love the strategy and the pushing and the shoving and all of the things that come with it. With that comes a lot of risk as far as getting torn up. Kind of like the rest of our year, we haven’t gotten the finishes that we’ve been accustomed to in the past at the superspeedways. Hopefully, we’ve been saving all of that luck up and can get through this weekend and put ourselves up front when it counts. It’ll be fun to see how it all shakes out.”
And after last Sunday’s great run at Dover, four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon has moved into the top 10 in the Chase, 48 points behind leader Keselowski.
Gordon is one of the best at Talladega Superspeedway, where he is the active leader with six wins, 14 top-five and 18 top-10 finishes in 39 starts. He has faded recently, though, with a 27th-place finish last October and a 33rd this past April.
“There is no set strategy that works best,” Gordon said. “If there was, we all would be doing it. Drafting can be fun and the finish is usually exciting, but you don't know when, where or if you're going to be caught up in the 'big one.' I've raced up front and been caught up in a wreck. I've also been involved while running in the middle of the pack and also while running what I thought was a conservative distance back of the main pack, but I've also won using each of those strategies. You may have to use each at some point during the race. You just need to be willing to change and adjust if a different plan will put you in a better position to win. You rely on your spotter providing good information about which lane is doing what or who has a run, but you're constantly looking at the mirrors in your car in that situation.
“If we're going to have any shot at moving up the standings or having any shot at the championship, then things will need to go our way this weekend. Everybody knows they can win here, and we believe we can win, as well. We always seem to have fast cars here. We look at this race as an opportunity."
Two Roush-Fenway drivers round out the Chase. Greg Biffle – the Cup points leader at the end of the 26-race regular season – is 11th, 51 points out. Two-time Daytona 500 winner and 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth is 12th, 72 points out of the lead. For these two drivers, a victory at Talladega may be the only thing that can return them to contention for this year’s championship.