Points leaders face a monster test at biggest, baddest track in the land

Updated: October 10, 2008, 12:36 PM ET

AP Photo/Jay Sailors

This "big one" in Talladega Superspeedway's 2005 spring race collected 15 cars in Turn 1.

Start Your Engines

Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle have kicked off the Chase with an unprecedented show of power. Never in the five-year history of the playoff format have three drivers finished in the top five in each of the first three Chase races.

But let's see how much luck is on their side this week.

It's Talladega time.

The road to success in the Chase is on the intermediate-length tracks -- like last week's stop, Kansas -- because there are five such races among the 10 playoff stops. The road to ruin in the Chase points straight to the biggest track in the Chase, and all of NASCAR: the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, ABC). You know the details: restrictor plates, freight-train drafts, cars running inches apart at 200 mph. In a word, trouble.

"Talladega is definitely the wild-card race and anything can happen there," said Biffle, third in points for Roush Fenway Racing. "You put all the [car] numbers in a coffee can and dump them out because our cars today are so close in speed. It doesn't matter where you're running on the racetrack.

"I was running third in a Nationwide race and watched a car fly upside down across my hood, so being at the front, at the back or in the middle, it doesn't matter because you can be involved in something anywhere. And a lot of times it's not about speed or talent, it's 'Did you miss the accident?'"

Biffle knows. He was in a four-car accident late in the 2007 Talladega fall race. Seventeen cars were involved in incidents in the last 40-plus laps of that race, with 11 caught in the "big one." There was also an 11-car scrum in the final lap of this year's spring race, leaving a mess in Turn 2 while, up ahead, Kyle Busch streaked to a win.

We could go on. Do a search of "Talladega crash" on YouTube and you could kill half a day at the office.

"When they have the big one, you're involved with 20-car pileups sometimes," said Clint Bowyer, seventh in points in the No. 07 Richard Childress Racing Chevy. "It's not always your fault or anything that you're doing, but you can get caught up in it. You could be leading the race, be dominant all day, and then get wiped out at the end. You're not always in that perfect, comfortable situation in a place like Talladega."

That doesn't stop drivers from taking different approaches to trying to find some sort of safe way to survive 188 laps on the high banks. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Jeff Gordon avoided the front like the plague a year ago, playing possum in the rear all day and then making a late charge. Gordon won and Johnson finished second.

"While I hate that strategy, it worked in that instance," said Gordon, a six-time winner at Talladega.

There are different ways to run and different people to run with, as drivers will talk about making friends and allies in the draft. But allegiances can end with the next lane change, and a failed partnership can lead to disaster. And with the Chase a week away from its midpoint, there are a handful of drivers who can't afford to crash out early and take a big hit in the points.

"I think as far as our position now in the Chase, we just kind of got to go for broke, really throw it out there and take some chances, really take some risks," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., eighth in points and 190 back of the leader, his teammate Johnson. "At Talladega you can make some pretty ridiculous moves, and some of them pay off; some of them don't."

Rocket Man

Jimmie Johnson: Reggie Jackson still soaks up the adulation of being Mr. October, 30 years after the fact. Maybe JJ will be the NASCAR version of that guy around, say, 2038, basking in the glow of his six Cup championships and 80 career victories, 30 of which came in the Chase.

Don't laugh. The guy is well on his way. A dozen of his 38 career wins have come in the pressure cooker of the Chase, and Sunday's triumph at Kansas put him that much closer to a third title. Sure, it's a 10-point lead with seven races to go, but it's entirely possible that the No. 48 is just warming up, getting ready for a run like he had last year (four consecutive wins) or in 2006 (five consecutive finishes of second or better).

"I wish we could say we were holding out and waiting for this part of the season," the Hendrick Motorsports driver said. "For us, it's really about just working all season long and getting stuff together at the right time."

Johnson is too modest to say he's a money driver who now has the ability to create a Mr. October-like figure.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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Standings

You Gotta See This

Slippery Slope

Stewart

Tony Stewart: This is not the farewell tour anyone would have imagined for Smoke in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Toyota. The latest installment in his winless 2008: scuffling with Brian Vickers on the track and in the pits at Kansas, at one point scooping up the No. 83 team's gas man on his hood and having his car kicked by said gas man. Ugh.

The two-time Cup champion is 11th in Chase points, with only woeful teammate Kyle Busch keeping him out of last, and his nine-year streak of winning a race (actually, he has won at least two per year, beginning with his 1999 rookie season) is in trouble.

Stewart has had a knack this year of rebounding from bad finishes: After his past four finishes of 20th or worse, he has rebounded with a top-5. But who knows if there's one more win left in the orange before Smoke strikes out on his own?

Going The Wrong Way

Truex

Martin Truex Jr.: Is there a lonelier place in NASCAR right now than Dale Earnhardt Inc.? Paul Menard's departure for Yates Racing, family sponsor in tow, leaves the fabled organization with some major work to do to raise cash for its multicar operation in 2009. And if a team is only as good as its last race, uh, Truex was last at Kansas after a transmission failure.

"That's a perfect example of why we're not in the Chase," said Truex, who fell to 16th in points. "We've been bringing good cars to the track, but our luck has been awful. A $20 piece of equipment broke in the car and ruined our day. I don't know what we need to do to turn our luck around."

The rest of DEI is probably thinking the same thing.

Showing Some Love For …

Allmendinger

AJ Allmendinger: That had to feel good, finishing a career-best ninth at Kansas in his final race with Red Bull Racing Team. Allmendinger was the highest-finishing Toyota and was running in the pack with Chase drivers, another sign among several in the past couple months that he does belong in the Cup garage.

Allmendinger was fed to the wolves much quicker than the man who will inherit his seat, Scott Speed. The former Champ Car driver didn't have a full season of development-series work before going full-time in Cup last year and struggling with Red Bull Toyotas that weren't ready for prime time.

Allmendinger and the No. 84 never got into the top 35 in owners' points, making for a struggle at the start of this year and leading to a five-race benching in which veteran Mike Skinner drove. But in the past 11 races Allmendinger has started to settle in, posting five top-15s and putting the No. 84 in that crucial top 35. His reward? Walking papers. Doesn't quite seem right.