As the Sprint Cup circuit heads to Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday’s Hellmann’s 500,
the final race in the Round of 12, only two Chase drivers are already assured of advancing to the Round of 8, which begins next week at Martinsville Speedway.
Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson are set to advance to the next round due to their wins at Kansas and Charlotte, respectively.
The other 10 drivers still in the Chase likely won’t know whether they’ll advance until after the checkered flag falls on Sunday.
That’s due to the nature of racing at Talladega, where restrictor plates are used to slow speeds, but also lead to giant packs of cars that often wind up in multicar wrecks. Sometimes those big wrecks happen on the last lap or in the latter stages of the race, and that can spell doom for Chase drivers, as restrictor plate races by nature tend to have a lot of drivers running on the lead lap near the finish. However, if a Chase driver has a late problem, there aren’t enough laps to overcome the setback.
Matt Kenseth, who is in the best shape pointswise of the Chase drivers who are winless in the Round of 12, doesn’t have that much of a cushion heading into Talladega. He needs to finish at least 28th, if he doesn’t lead a lap, to be assured of advancing. That doesn’t sound impossible, but even a moderate amount of trouble during the race could knock him out.
The same is true for defending Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch, who is two points behind Kenseth and needs to finish at least 26th to be assured of advancing. Those numbers could change during the race, depending on how the other Chase drivers finish.
Busch’s history in Chase races at Talladega since the introduction of the elimination format shows just how unpredictable the race can be.
In 2014, he entered Talladega with a 25-point cushion over ninth place, but wound up in a wreck that left him with a 40th-place finish that eliminated him from the Chase.
Last year, he came to Talladega ninth in the Chase standings but finished 11th. When combined with the woes experienced by some of his fellow Chase drivers, it was good enough to advance him. Busch went on to make the cut for the final round, and he won that race and the championship in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Busch said in a team release that the most important thing in this Chase format is to find a way to make it into the final four at Homestead.
“You never can have any comfort, and you do what you need to do in order to transfer through,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to pull through in all of these races, and you’ve got to have a little bit of luck go your way, too.
“You’ve got to have the execution of everything go your way. It starts with coming off the hauler and getting good practice sessions going, qualifying well, trying to always stay up front, and then putting yourself in position for a chance to make it through this weekend.”
Austin Dillon, who is currently out of the top eight, along with Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott, can take heart in the fact that he had one of the best finishes of his career back in May at Talladega, where he started second and finished third. And he did so in a car with so much damage from an earlier wreck that he made a total of 17 pit stops in that race.
The difference now is that he’s in the Chase for the first time in his career and has to be mindful of where he is in relation to his fellow Chase drivers when it comes to decisions made during the final laps.
“It will be interesting,” Dillon said in a team release. “It probably won’t change our strategy. Our average finish at superspeedways has been one of the best, as far as having the best finishing position as a driver, so that’s a good average to have. We have to really look at it when we get there and find out how we want to go about it.”
One thing is for sure, if he’s still out of the top eight when the race nears its end, he’ll be doing whatever it takes to try to win the race.
“If you need a win, you’re going to go for broke,” he said. “If you’re sitting comfortably where you need to be and you can guard a top-five finish, you just need to take that top-five finish and go on, I think.”