That will change after Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Any thought of winning the Sprint Cup Series champion generally is tempered with the very real chance of crashing at Talladega. Fender-benders turn into 20-car pileups. Accidents are non-discriminatory, collecting the slowest back markers as well as championship contenders in an enormous shower of smoke and sparks.
Since the Chase started in 2004, 39 different playoff drivers have been involved in an accident at the 2.66-mile raceway. Of all those, Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to leave Talladega following a crash car during the playoffs and still go on to win championships in 2006 and 2008.
A rules package to keep cars from becoming airborne during an accident means nobody has enough power to pull away from traffic. That bunches the entire field into a three-wide, 10-deep pack. At 200 mph, there is no margin for error.
The strategy for most is to survive. After that, the attention will shift to the championship. Matt Kenseth started the Chase with victories at Kansas and New Hampshire, and he’s led the point standings since.
But his margin has been trimmed to just four points heading into Talladega. His approach is unique because he doesn’t want to get too excited about a good finish, or too depressed about a bad one, especially since he knows the difference usually is in the hands of others.
“You can sit and be nervous and think about crashing and think about losing points or you can look at it as an opportunity and look forward to going there,” Kenseth said. “Anything can happen, but go there and try to work hard and try to keep your car positioned up front somewhere and lead some laps and go try to win the thing. That’s kind of the attitude I go with. You never know what’s going to happen.”
That plan hasn’t always worked for Kenseth. He wrecked in 2007 and 2008 while competing in the Chase.
Races in 2008 and 2012 had dramatic impacts on the Chase. Nine playoff drivers were involved in accidents in each race.
Kyle Busch was involved in the big pileup in 2008. He’s also been involved in two other Chase crashes.
“I think Talladega’s definitely the biggest test for everybody,” he said. “There’s certainly too many variables. It’s so wide open that you just have no idea. Anybody can go into that race and win.
“We just need to go through that weekend, have a good, solid picture of what we want to achieve. Of course, that’s a top‑10 finish. Anything less than that is going to hurt us.
“I would say Talladega is your biggest challenge. Just how are you going to race there? Are you going to go full bore? Hang out, ride in the back? What exactly is going to happen? There’s so much unknown in that race, I think that’s the biggest test for everybody.”
Greg Biffle is sixth in the standings. He’s also 58 points behind. Like others who need a miracle to get back into contention, Talladega is the best place to turn things around.
“I’ve explained restrictor plate racing as it’s either white-knuckle, very intense, or you’re sitting there waiting for somebody to pull out of line or something to get happening,” he said. “There’s no in-between. It’s either a dull moment or it’s high-energy, white-knuckle. We know what to expect. It’s kind of the same thing every race, so this won’t be any different.”
Nobody knows the perils – and the possible benefits – of Talladega than Johnson. He’s been in all nine previous Chases and he wrecked at Talladega in five of them.
“The big question is just Talladega,” Johnson said. “I really work hard to worry about the things that I can control and forgetting about the rest.”