The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason is making the turn for home -- five races down and five to go. This weekend's stop on the 10-race ride is among the most pivotal of them all, Sunday's Alabama 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM) at Talladega Superspeedway.
With the playoff field about to be cut from 12 drivers to a final eight, our Holly Cain and Zack Albert tackle pressing topics ahead of a true Chase wildcard:
Halfway through the Chase, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have each won twice, leaving Jimmie Johnson as the only other race winner in the postseason's first five races. Will the champion be one of these three or is there still room for a Chase dark horse?
Cain: It is highly likely that the champion will come from among these three drivers, who have not only won lately but set the bar this year. With half the Chase remaining, someone else may -- and needs to -- step up, figuring it would be Brad Keselowski or Joey Logano or one of the four remaining Toyota drivers who have led the way. No dark horse here.
Albert: There's time left, but that clock -- not to be confused with the Camping World Truck Series' caution clock -- is ticking more urgently. Harvick, Truex and Johnson may be the main Chase triumvirate so far, but I'm holding the door open for a Keselowski-led Penske effort or another Joe Gibbs Racing entry to stage a Round of 12 rally, starting at Talladega.
Next year, a schedule shake-up for the Chase's Round of 12 will have Kansas trading places with Talladega to be the three-race series' elimination event. Do you favor the move or was the Charlotte-Kansas-Talladega progression a suitable schedule?
Cain: Depending on whom you talk to, Talladega settling the third-round Chase grid was either a huge opportunity or a crazy wild card. Everyone goes into the unpredictable Talladega race feeling like either he/she has a big opportunity or scant chance to emerge. That makes for a heightened excitement level, but the question is whether this type of race should solidify the next round of elimination. Cases can be made either way, but I think the switch-up is a good idea.
Albert: Talladega races are heart-clenching enough as it is -- whether it's in the regular season in May, in the playoffs in October or a 20-lap offseason trophy dash for funsies (just a suggestion). Making the schedule shift may slightly reduce spectator palpitations, but the track loses little in stature as the middle event in a three-race series. A more conventional venue such as Kansas makes more sense as the host of an elimination race.
The Chase's current bottom four: Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott. Of those four, who is best positioned to take out the math and guesswork and emerge with a season-saving Talladega win?
Cain: I truly see any and all four of these with the possibility of point-climbing their way up to Chase advancement. Among them, it's hardest to argue with Keselowski's Talladega resume. He already has two restrictor-plate wins at Daytona in July and at Talladega in the spring. He has lots of good Alabama juju -- scoring his first-ever Cup win at Talladega in 2009 and amassing four total wins there. He's finished in the top five in three of his last trips to the track.
Albert: With such a stacked quartet in the Chase basement, this is a tough one. All four drivers have the backing of teams with standout superspeedway programs, and Keselowski has evolved into one of the sport's best at the large, fast ovals where horsepower is restricted. While still imagining some No. 3 magic for Dillon or a No. 24 breakthrough for Elliott, Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin gets the slight nod from these parts in a plate-track pick 'em.