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TALLADEGA’S ‘BIG ONE’ LEAVES SEVERAL DRIVERS’ CHAMPIONSHIP HOPES ON THE BRINK
Few races can swing the pendulum on championship aspirations as quickly as Talladega Superspeedway.
The 2.66-mile superspeedway – NASCAR’s longest and perhaps most treacherous – has long been notorious for leaving cars a mangled mess and proving a major obstacle for drivers looking to win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Last weekend’s race did just that, leaving some of NASCAR’s biggest superstars and former champions on the brink of elimination. With Sunday’s Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway approaching, it is desperation times for some as the field will be trimmed to eight.
Here is the outlook for the 12 remaining drivers.
- Martin Truex Jr. (3,120 points) – His career-best season will continue into the Round of 8 as Truex Jr. scored his sixth win of the season – the most among Cup Series drivers – at Charlotte to earn an automatic berth. He has clearly shown he is the championship favorite, leading nearly 2,000 laps this season.
- Brad Keselowski (3,101 points / -19) – A win at Talladega could prove to be the shot in the arm Keselowski and his team needed to make a championship run. The win was the third for Keselowski on the season, but first since the team’s win at Martinsville in April. Keselowski now has his sights set on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ return to Martinsville in two weeks. "Martinsville at this moment as it stands I would say is a must‑win for us, and we know that going in,” Keselowski said. “We tested there, and we feel like that's the type of track that we have a lot of strength for. At this point, yes, but ... that could change.”
- Kyle Larson (3,096 points / -24) – Larson has not put up flashy statistics like he has throughout much of this season during the Round of 12, but he has stayed out of trouble. A 10th-place finish at Charlotte has been his best finish of the first two races in the Round of 12. With coveted Playoff points in his favor, he appears headed into the Round of 8.
- Kevin Harvick (3,089 points / -31) – A third-place finish at Charlotte followed by a 20th-place finish at Talladega spoiled his comfortable points cushion. Harvick was involved in a late-race accident last weekend in Talladega. “It was just a bad weekend,” Harvick said. “The Busch Light Ford wasn't as good as we needed. We had to start in the back and went to the back a couple other times and just couldn't make anything happen. We were on defense the whole time and wound up wrecked twice, so not a good weekend."
- Denny Hamlin (3,088 points / -32) – A pair of top-10 finishes has aided Hamlin’s quest to advance to the Round of 8. Hamlin was able to walk away unscathed and come home with a sixth-place finish at Talladega, one of only two playoff drivers to finish among the top 10.
- Chase Elliott (3,087 points / -33) – A second-place finish at Charlotte had Elliott and his team pointed in the right direction, but a late-race wreck while battling for the lead last weekend at Talladega slowed the momentum. The team has three runner-up finishes in the first five races of the playoffs and remains optimistic in advancing to the Round of 8. "There's not really a silver lining in having an opportunity to finish one off and not,” Elliott said following his wreck. “It was far from over and we had an opportunity. I'm more disappointed about that. The car was good again today, and that means more than anything so we'll move on."
- Ryan Blaney (3,076 points / -44) – Blaney and the single-car team of Wood Brothers Racing is looking to pull off the surprise of the playoffs by advancing into the Round of 8. Like many other playoff contenders, Blaney was caught up in an accident at Talladega that ruined his shot at opening up a wider points margin. "Obviously, it's disappointing,” Blaney said of not finishing off last weekend’s race at Talladega. “Everyone had a good chance for the win. I thought we were one of the faster cars all day, which was nice to show, but you can be the fastest car and not finish the race and you've got nothing to show for it."
- Jimmie Johnson (3,074 points / -46) – The seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver is on the brink of missing the Round of 8. A 24th-place finish last weekend left Johnson with his back against the wall as the team enters this weekend’s race at Kansas.
Drivers currently outside the playoff cutoff
- Kyle Busch (3,067 points / -53) – Busch, who once appeared an easy lock to advance to the Round of 8, now finds himself on the outside looking in. Busch has been plagued by poor performances at Charlotte and Talladega. He kicked off the Round of 12 with a 29th-place finish at Charlotte, followed by a 27th-place run at Talladega. A strong performance is needed this weekend at Kansas in order for the 2015 champion to advance.
- Matt Kenseth (3,066 points / -54) – Kenseth, in his final season with Joe Gibbs Racing, will need a strong run at Kansas and some misfortune by those in front of him to make it into the Round of 12. Kenseth, another former series champion, remains winless this season and this weekend at Kansas would be no better to make a visit to Victory Lane to advance his championship aspirations.
- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (3,052 points / -68) – Stenhouse Jr. narrowly made the Round of 12 and in order to advance to the Round of 8 he will need more than a little luck. Stenhouse Jr.’s 26th-place finish at Talladega has put the team in dire need of a victory. “I felt like we had a really fast Sunny D Ford to contend for a win and put on a show for all these fans that came out,” Stenhouse Jr. said following last weekend’s race. “Bummer we don't get to do it, but we will go on to Kansas next week and have some fun."
- Jamie McMurray (3,045 points / -75) McMurray is only focused on winning this weekend at Kansas. A win appears to be McMurray’s only change to advance into the Round of 8. "There's nothing you can do about it. It's part of Talladega," McMurray said. "We know you can come out of here with a lot of points and be a winner or you can be in the position we are right now. We'll go to Kansas and do our best."