Chase leaders bracing for the 'big one'
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- It's too late now for a mulligan.
Considering the fact that Talladega is NASCAR's most dangerous and unpredictable track, that's the really scary Halloween thought for the three men with a realistic shot at winning the Sprint Cup title.
"There's really no safe place," Johnson said Friday. "I really do enjoy racing at this track, but when you come here with the points on line, it's a much more stressful event. If we come out close to the 29 [Harvick] and the 11 [Hamlin], we know we'll have a great chance."
That's a big if. Talladega eats Chase contenders like a hungry shark in a tank full of perch.
One year ago, six of the 12 Chasers were involved in accidents. Five of them failed to finish the race and only three Chase drivers finished in the top 10. In 2008, nine Chasers were involved in accidents and six of them posted DNFs.
A driver can have a bad finish early in the Chase and still win the championship, but not with four to go in a tight three-man battle.
Yes, Johnson had his uh-oh moment last year at Texas Motor Speedway, the eighth of the 10 Chase races. But he entered the event with a 184-point lead over Mark Martin. Johnson still was 73 points ahead after finishing 38th at Texas.
Johnson doesn't have that luxury this time. He's six points ahead of Hamlin and 62 up on Harvick. All three drivers have to avoid the big wreck Sunday or forget about winning the title.
A bad finish isn't an option. Want proof?
In five of the six previous seasons, the Chase champion finished ninth or better at Talladega. In Johnson's last three championship years, he finished second, ninth and sixth at Talladega.
He finished 24th on the 2.66-mile Alabama oval in the 2006 Chase race, but the Talladega event came earlier in the playoff. It was the fourth race of the playoff instead of the sixth, so he had more time to recover en route to his first Cup title.
With only three races remaining after Sunday, a 30th-or-worse finish Sunday means you're done. And as we've seen earlier in the Chase, the non-Chasers don't care, nor do the Chasers who can't catch the contenders. The 40 drivers not in the title fight have their own problems to worry about this weekend. So drivers will have different agendas in Sunday's race.
"There's a lot of guys in the field that are fighting for jobs," Tony Stewart said this week. "Those guys don't really have that flexibility to ride around. They're trying to impress car owners.
"Those guys are fighting all day long to stay up as high as they can, and there's also guys that have done this a long time that have a more methodical approach to it. Everybody has a different strategy."
It means some guys are going all-out while others are trying to play it safe until the end.
"I think there's times when the fans get discouraged that their driver is running in the back," Stewart said. "The good thing about Talladega is you can just about be guaranteed if your driver is in the back, they're choosing to be there at that point in the race, not because they don't have a very good race car."
Harvick comes in as the favorite with two restrictor-plate victories this season, including the race here in the spring.
"We want to lead a lap as soon as we can to get those bonus points," said Gil Martin, Harvick's crew chief. "After that, we may fall back and see who is good for us to draft with."
The plan is different for Jamie McMurray and the No. 1 Chevy team. McMurray isn't in the Chase, but he knows he can win in a plate race. He won the Daytona 500 and came close to winning at Talladega in April before Harvick passed him on the last lap.
"Our thoughts are to win," said Kevin Manion, McMurray's crew chief. "That's the plan. We're gonna run up front and try to stay there. But it's going to be two races until the end. I think the Chasers will run at the back until the end."
Hamlin said he has no intention of playing possum and running in the back.
"We always run up front at [Talladega]," Hamlin said. "We've really figured out a good setup, and I feel like I've gotten better at superspeedway racing.
"But you never know. We could go out there and come out with a 50-, 60-point lead or be that far behind. You just don't know. All we can do is run the race the way we always do."
Three of the six previous Chase races at Talladega were won by non-Chasers. And six of the past 10 Talladega races were decided with a last-lap pass.
Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick hope they're still around on the last lap. They have to make it to the end. No mulligan allowed.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.