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Qualifying the Chasers: Talladega

October 06, 2012, Nick Margiasso,

Chase leaders back in pack, drivers in mid-points standings up front

Brad Keselowski (Qualified 22nd): How far we have come. From young, rising loose gun to the far-and-free favorite to win a Sprint Cup title. Keselowski, no matter who you are a fan of, has the real look of a champion right now. Everything is going right, moving forward and clicking for this team. And right when thing's look like they couldn't be going any better -- boom -- we hit Talladega. Bad-Fast Brad's two wins here are nearly a quarter of his career total (how's that math?), and it's even money for another this weekend.

Chase Standings

2.J. Johnson-5
3.D. Hamlin-16
4.C. Bowyer-25
5.T. Stewart-32
6.K. Kahne-32
7.Earnhardt Jr.-39
8.Truex Jr.-42
9.K. Harvick-46
10.J. Gordon-48
11.G. Biffle-51
12.M. Kenseth-72

Jimmie Johnson (Qualified 17th): Well, the only thing separating the last great racing champion from blowing the field away in his search for an unprecedented sixth Cup championship in seven years is ... well ... the NEXT great racing champion (hey there again, Brad). Although he hasn't finished well in the last two races at the bull ring (26th and 35th), he has two wins there as well. Plus, his average ... AVERAGE ... finish so far in the Chase this season is 2.6. WHAT?!

Denny Hamlin (Qualified 23rd): It doesn't get much more interesting than Denny's situation. He won the most "regular season" races, DOMINATED at Loudon after saying earlier in the week that he would win it and sits in third place going into arguably the most unpredictable track. This week, a win puts him possibly in the Chase lead; a bad or even not-too-good finish maybe drops him from real contender to a place outside the top four or five. He's not very good at Talladega, though, with an average finish of 18.2 in his career. Luckily, this is the kind of place where anything can happen and go his way.

Clint Bowyer (Qualified 3rd): If it wasn't for superhuman Five-Time, Bowyer would easily deserve the most applause for his yeoman's work in getting into the top four in the Chase without a "postseason" win. And it's great timing for Clint, too, as he loves him some 'Dega. Bowyer has two wins in his last four races in Alabama each of the last two Chase races there), and has finished inside the top 10 in each of the last five races. Barring a nightmare event, look for Bowyer to keep choppin' wood.

Tony Stewart (Qualified 4th): After keeping on Jimmie Johnson's heels as the best three-race winner to have not won in the Chase but stay extremely competitive (how's that for a category), Smoke dropped a bomb on us. A big fat dud. He threw up a 20th at Dover and now has to do some real work to stay in the top five, not to mention rise in the rankings. He's tied in fifth place at 32 points behind the Chase leader, and has looked better.

Kasey Kahne (Qualified 1st): Kasey is doing the poor man's Clint Bowyer right now: looking good, generally -- out there, going fast, avoiding trouble. But his 15th at Dover last weekend puts him on the edge of being outside the top five if he makes another even mediocre move. Besides a couple of second-places at Talladega, though, he's been pretty bad there (average finish: 20.8). He'll be one of those "mean-spirited" ones, as Brad K. says, hoping for a wreck to increase his shot this weekend.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Qualified 12th): Dale Jr. has had a great season in terms of getting consistency back into his game. He's been around all season, breaking his winless streak and even taking the points lead at one juncture. But here is a stat that tells the story about his actual Chase chances. Junior has the best average finish of all Cup drivers in 2012. And that's the problem -- that is the crowning jewel of stats which all point to his amazing averageness in 2012. Talladega, a track he likes and has won at, might be his last shot to grab a win and get back in this thing. After all, you can't be a champion by being the best at being average.

Martin Truex Jr. (Qualified 9th): We are looking, more and more, at the unripe pick of the pair of Michael Waltrip peaches in this Chase. Everyone's rooting for ol' Marty, but that winless streak is looking to be a real hawk at this point. And Talladega isn't going to be the turning point for Truex Jr., as he just isn't very good on restrictor-plate tracks. He has scored just five top-10s in 30 attempts. If that near-miss in Atlanta showed us anything, it's that it's not Martin Truex Jr.'s year -- again.

Kevin Harvick (Qualified 21st): I mean, at this point, someone is hacking into NASCAR's computer network and just adding points to his total, right? He finished a mild 13th last week -- his third straight finish in that range, all Chase races. This guy is hanging around the teens more than R. Kelly.

Jeff Gordon (Qualified 6th):This weekly piece has come down pretty hard on JG since the beginning of the Chase and, well, it stops now. He's done great work to go from an awful Chicagoland finish to getting back within the top 10. But, even he said after his best Chase performance, the top five are basically going to have to all get locked in a go-kart park at about 2 p.m. ET on Sunday for him to have a shot. This is another guy looking for the wreck to take out his competitors, as he's finished 19th or worse in seven of the last nine 'Dega races. He's finished in the top 10 only four times in his last 19 plate races, overall. That's not going to earn many make-up points.

Greg Biffle (Qualified 5th): At least there's always the really bad Ford drivers at this point, right Greg? Remember back in 2012 B.C. when Biffle led the points? Neither do I. And, driving a Ford, that's not even going to come close to happening again this season. The manufacturer has two wins in the last 27 'Dega races. Biffle has zero of those. Enough said.

Matt Kenseth (Qualified 15th): Kenseth is dropping harder than a Kyle Busch f-bomb on top of Toyota. In fact, he might as well let Rowdy into the Chase instead of himself at 12th. At least he's not driving a Ford at Talladega.

Story includes statistics from © Racing Resources and Services, Statistics by © Racing Recall®

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.