Chase Update: Hamlin Wins at Martinsville; Talladega Looms for Championship Contenders

Denny MVS

One week after an old-school slugfest at the Chase’s shortest track, Martinsville Speedway, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series playoffs resume at Talladega Superspeedway, the biggest and fastest circuit in the 10-race slate, on Sunday afternoon. Talladega Superspeedway is the most unpredictable of the Chase races, because of the inherent potential for a standings shake-up whenever a restrictor-plate race comes around. No lead is safe coming into Sunday’s event. No lead is ever safe coming into Talladega. The shows at Talladega are always some of the season’s most eventful races, both for the fans and drivers.

Those drivers in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship may consider it a nightmare — especially since it comes with only four races remaining in the 2009 season.

There have been five editions of Talladega in the Chase format. And on three occasions — 2004, 2005 and 2006 — the points leader entering the race has failed to win the title.

Conversely, the points leader after Talladega — Jimmie Johnson in 2007, Tony Stewart in 2005 and Kurt Busch in 2004 — went on to become champion.

In the Chase era (2004-present), the points leader after six races has gone on to win the championship in two of the five Chases. Prior to the Chase’s inception, from 1975-2003, five drivers won the title after trailing with four races to go.

Following a second-place finish to Denny Hamlin last weekend at Martinsville, Johnson’s current lead of 118 points might appear comfortable, but history suggests otherwise. Although Johnson has finished ninth and second in his past two fall Talladega starts, the three-time champion’s overall record in the race isn’t good. Before his runner-up performance in 2007, Johnson failed to finish higher than 24th with four finishes of 31st or worse.

He finished 30th in Talladega’s Aaron’s 499 earlier this year. Talladega is his third-worst track for average finish (17.7) and Driver Rating (84.1) Ironically, Johnson is the only driver to win a championship in the Chase era with a finish outside the top 10 in the fall Talladega race. He overcame a 24th-place performance in 2007.

Hamlin’s win at Martinsville gave the Chesterfield, Virginia native a sweep of the Sprint Cup Series fall races in his home state. Hamlin, who also won “One Last Race to Make the Chase” at Richmond International Raceway, became the first Virginia driver to win at Richmond and Martinsville in the same season since Joe Weatherly in 1961. But an accident while leading at Auto Club Speedway and blown engine at Kansas all but eliminated Hamlin from a title shot.

Mark Martin is the top threat to derail Johnson’s shot at a fourth-straight Sprint Cup Series championship, trailing his teammate by 118 points. The good news for Johnson is that the two closest contenders – second-place Martin and third-place Jeff Gordon – have worse numbers this season in the restrictor-plate races.

In the first three races, Gordon has averaged a finish of 26.0, a Driver Rating of 67.8 and an Average Running Position of 21.8. His Driver Rating ranks 21st among all drivers in plate races. Martin’s name sits even further down the stat sheet. In the three races, he has averaged a finish of 32.3, a Driver Rating of 63.7 and an Average Running Position of 29.8. His Driver Rating ranks 25th among all drivers in plate races.

Still, Martin is looking for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship, and Gordon is aiming for his fifth career title. Though Jimmie Johnson’s 118-point lead seems daunting, history suggests that it’s not an impossible one to erase. In 1992, Alan Kulwicki overcame a 144-point deficit to Bill Elliott with four races remaining to capture the championship. That was the largest comeback since the current points system was implemented in 1975. The second-largest lead to vanish with four races remaining was Jeff Gordon’s 111- point cushion over Terry Labonte in 1996. Labonte went on to win his second championship that season In the Chase era (2004-Present), the points leader after six races has gone onto win the championship in two of the five Chases. In 2006 and 2007, Johnson overtook Matt Kenseth and Gordon, respectively, to win his first two titles. Prior to the Chase’s inception, from 1975-2003, five drivers won the championship after trailing with four races to go. 

Taking a look at the drivers outside of the Chase this weekend, it’s interesting to note it has been more than two years — 23 races — since a Chase race has been won by a driver not part of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The drought, extending to Greg Biffle’s Sept. 30, 2007 victory at Kansas Speedway, could end this week especially if past Talladega performances are considered.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one obvious candidate. So is Kyle Busch and 2009 Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth. Earnhardt is a five-time Talladega winner three times capturing the AMP Energy 500. Busch won last spring’s Aaron’s 499 and finished fourth at Martinsville — his first top-five finish since Sept. 20. Then there’s this spring’s surprise winner Brad Keselowski, who’ll drive the same No. 09 Chevrolet. Two non-Chase drivers have won the fall Talladega race: Brian Vickers in 2006 and Dale Jarrett in 2005.

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