- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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With less than a lap remaining last October at Talladega Superspeedway, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were sitting pretty. Not just in the race itself -- they also were in favorable position in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
That changed in an instant once Brian Vickers made contact with then-teammate Johnson, sending Johnson's car into Earnhardt's. Both spun as Vickers went on to win, while Earnhardt and Johnson were left thinking of the finish that got away.
Earnhardt left Talladega sixth in points, while Johnson was eighth. Johnson rallied to win the title, but Earnhardt wasn't as fortunate.
Now the question is which Chase driver will head home Sunday night feeling the way Johnson and Earnhardt did a year ago. Chances are at least one driver will feel bad about his chances after the UAW-Ford 500. Even if there's no trouble, some drivers could rue the fact that those ahead of them in the standings made it through arguably the Chase's biggest crapshoot unscathed.
A year ago, a crash ended Jeff Gordon's day early, and his 36th-place finish proved costly. In 2005, Mark Martin lost valuable points due to a crash, and Jeremy Mayfield crashed there during the '04 Chase, while Johnson lost an engine in that event.
Talladega doesn't play favorites, so while the standings were shuffled greatly at Kansas, it will hardly be surprising if that's the case again this Sunday.
Seemingly buried 248 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin is riding shotgun on the Chase field. With nowhere to go but up from 12th, he'd be best served if the 11 drivers in front of him all have trouble.
That may be asking a lot, but Hamlin's going to do all he can to gain on at least a few of those he's pursuing.
"It's definitely time for us to be a little more aggressive and take some chances because of the spot we're in. Leading laps like we've done here before will be important, and staying up front will hopefully keep us out of any trouble taking place behind us," Hamlin said. "We have to stay focused on what we need to do to run top-5s in the remaining races, and not worry about what the other 11 guys are doing. As we saw in Kansas, if you can keep your car clean from any damage and stay out of trouble, it can end up being a decent day."
Hamlin, though, will need spectacular days if he's to have a realistic chance of even surging into the top five in points, let alone close in on the leaders.
One driver who doesn't need a spectacular day is Clint Bowyer. And given his track record in three Cup starts at Talladega, simply coming home inside the top 20 would be akin to winning the race.
Bowyer has yet to finish higher than 35th at the track, and a similar finish this time would likely knock him out of third in the standings. He is just 14 points behind Johnson, so a solid finish will greatly aid his title hopes.
"Everybody is worried about Talladega. It's going to be a handful," Bowyer said. "You can get away with so much more in this car.
"You can push each other all the way around the racetrack. You have to lift in the corner and in the tri-oval to keep from running over the guy in front of you. You drag the brake a little bit on those areas and go right back to it on the straightaways. Obviously, if everyone can keep their heads, it will be fine, but I've got a feeling we're going to struggle with that."
Bowyer has earned more points than his 11 fellow Chase competitors over the past three races, which is why his deficit has closed from 60 points to 14. If he finally avoids trouble at Talladega, he might really have a chance at surprising some people.
"I think everyone counted us out when the Chase started. We were the 12th seed and I think the majority of the media and the critics saw us as just that -- the 12th seed, nothing more," Bowyer said. "It's been very satisfying to be able to win a race and run up front these last three weeks. We're becoming a better race team and I think we've proven that we belong here. I'm excited about how we're running. I can't wait to get to the racetrack.
"We've got a couple tracks coming up where we've struggled. We've never finished well at Talladega. We've run well but couldn't get the finish we needed. Same goes for Charlotte. I can't wait to get to both of those tracks and get those races behind us. If we can do what we've done everywhere else this season, we'll be just fine. Right now, I don't care if the critics believe in us or not. If we end up being lucky enough to hold that trophy at the end of the season, we'll be the ones laughing."
The question is, which Chase drivers will be the ones simply smiling, let alone laughing, as they exit Talladega?
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
A good season can turn bad in a hurry if things go awry at Talladega. The crown jewel of Alabama has a mind of its own, writes Mark Ashenfelter.