TALLADEGA, Ala. — When Jeff Gordon started the Chase for the Championship with a 35th-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway, he hoped finishes of third- and second-place in the past two races would get him back into contention.
Instead, he’s fallen further behind.
While every playoff has been different, many agree it’s becoming increasingly difficult to win the Sprint Cup Series championship with one bad race in the Chase.
And with Talladega Superspeedway up next, drivers know whoever escapes the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 without a crash will have a big advantage over everyone else.
“It’s going to be the wild card race,” Clint Bowyer said. “That race can shake things up in a big way. It can propel you to the lead or bury you.”
Restrictor plates to reduce speed for safety reasons means nobody has the power to pull away from traffic. With packs running three wide and 10 deep, a little accident generally turns into a big pileup.
For drivers at the bottom of the Chase standings, it’s a chance to make a rally. For everyone else, it’s time to play defense.
“If we are going to have any shot at moving up in the points and have any shot at the championship, then we are going to have things go well for us at Talladega,” Gordon said. “We hope this is the time we survive the big one.”
Gordon was 47 points behind after crashing in the first playoff race. Despite a pair of top-three finishes he now heads to Talladega trailing by 48. Although he’s further back, he’s moved up to 10th, ahead of Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth.
A year ago Tony Stewart got two mulligans in the Chase. He finished 25th at Dover, Del., and 15th at Kansas City, but he also had five wins in the playoffs to beat Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker.
The way this year’s playoff has started – points leader Brad Keselowski and second-place Jimmie Johnson each have started with top-six finishes in all three races – there might not be any second chances. The biggest hurdle, however, is Talladega.
“I think you can’t have a bad finish and win the championship,” Keselowski said. “I think you can have a bad finish and finish in the top two or three. We’ll see. Every Chase seems to have its own way and its own process of winning it. I think it’s important to not over-think it and just do it.”
Johnson isn’t thinking too far ahead. “Right now my mind set is top threes,” he said. “If we can keep knocking out top threes and then get to race six or seven, see what we’ve got to do then we will be in great shape.”
Johnson has been on both ends of the championship spectrum. He won in 2007 by never finishing worse than 14th during the Chase. A year earlier he won despite failing to finish two races.