CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s down to Talladega Superspeedway in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, which has hardly resembled a title race over the past four weeks.
Three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson has taken commanding control in his bid for a NASCAR record fourth consecutive title, and his challengers have one last desperate hope at the largest and most unpredictable track on the circuit.
Only it’s not about how well Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart or Juan Pablo Montoya might run on Sunday. Nope, this race is all about what could happen to Johnson.
See, Talladega is Johnson’s worst track in the 10-race Chase. There was a win in 2006 and a pair of runner-up finishes the next season, but the rest of his record represents the struggle that Johnson has had on the high-banked Alabama track.
Three engine failures and three wrecks, including a late accident in April that led to a 30th-place finish, have left Johnson with six DNF’s and a 17.7 average finish.
“Man, it (stinks) racing here,” Johnson said after wrecking out of April’s race.
So it makes sense that Johnson was a bit testy following his second-place finish at Martinsville last week. The questions, of course, turned to Talladega and all the unknowns that track brings for the usually unflappable champion.
He knows the smallest miscalculation Sunday — by himself or anyone else in the 43-car field — could trigger “The Big One” and the damage might be enough to swallow up a ton of Johnson’s cushy 118-point lead over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Martin.
Tell us, champ, just how do you feel about going to Talladega?
“I’m so tired of answering this question,” he replied. “I think you guys can all figure it out. Talladega, there’s no telling.”
No, there’s not, and that apparently has Johnson on edge. Particularly since it’s the one place that has his challengers chomping at the bit.
Martin, who has made no secret of his dislike of Talladega despite two career victories, figures the odds are in his favor of having a good race on Sunday. He was caught in the very first accident in April and was headed home after just six laps. He finished last.
“Somehow or another, I just feel lucky about this one,” Martin said recently. “If you can wreck on lap five of the last one there, something tells me I ought to be able to miss it this time. That’s about as bad of luck as you can have.”
Gordon, another Hendrick teammate, is a six-time Talladega winner with a 12.3 average finish. Although he also was a victim of accidents in the last two races — he has consecutive finishes of 38th and 37th — he swept the 2007 events.
Gordon, the four-time series champion, is hoping a good finish Sunday will trim into the 150-point lead Johnson has over him.
“You can be aggressive or you can be conservative, either approach can be good or bad, and I don’t believe one approach works better than the other,” Gordon said. “The ‘Big One’ is going to happen, it’s just whether you get caught up in the crash or not, or whether it comes early or late in the race. Just be ahead of it or way behind it — don’t be in the middle of it.
“Rarely do you escape when you are in the middle of it.”
Then there’s Stewart, the defending race winner. A six-time runner-up at Talladega, his victory last October was long overdue and another one could help him chip away at his 187-point deficit.
And don’t forget Montoya, who wishes he could forget the Chase race at Charlotte two weeks ago. Throw out his 35th-place finish there, and Montoya would be right on Johnson’s back bumper. Instead, he’s 195-points out despite finishes of either third or fourth in every other Chase race.
Now he goes to Talladega, a track that has suited him since his 2006 departure from Formula One. He made his stock-car debut at Talladega three years ago in an ARCA race, finished second in the 2007 Cup event and won the pole in April.
He’s perhaps the one driver not concerned with how Johnson runs every week, and that could play into his favor Sunday.
“You’ve got to worry about what you’re doing, not what everybody else is doing,” Montoya said. “I think people keep worrying about what he is doing and as long as you keep worrying about what he’s doing, you’re not doing your job properly.”