Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 MyLowe’s Chevrolet, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet, practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 21, 2011 in Talladega, Alabama.
(October 20, 2011 – Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America)
(PhatzRadio / USA Today) — At the midpoint of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR heads to the track in its 10-race title run with the most volatility. Sunday’s Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega Superspeedway offers the best chance of the remaining venues to shake up the standings.
A look at key questions entering the sixth Chase race:
Q: In light of Dan Wheldon’s death in an Izod IndyCar Series race, is NASCAR wary of going to one of its fastest, most unpredictable tracks?
A: The sport’s last on-track death was Dale Earnhardt’s in 2001, before SAFER barriers and head-and-neck restraints improved driver safety. But one of NASCAR’s most frightening crashes in recent years came at Talladega in 2009, when Carl Edwards’ car flew into a catch fence after contact with Brad Keselowski’s vehicle on the final lap.
Similar to the scenario that led to the 15-car pileup that took Wheldon’s life, restrictor-plate races put cars traveling nearly 200 mph in tight packs, presenting the possibility of “the big one” on almost any lap.
And though drivers aren’t saying Wheldon’s death gives them extra pause, five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson says, “There is a threshold (of speed) for all the cars where they’re airborne, and as we go to Talladega with a larger restrictor plate we get closer to that threshold.”
Q: How will NASCAR recognize Wheldon this weekend?
A: Cars will be affixed with a replica “Lionheart Knight” decal that Wheldon wore on his helmet, and there will be a moment of silence before the Cup race. Keselowski’s back bumper will read, “In Honor of Dan.”
Q: Why did NASCAR make rules changes for this race?
A: While not explicitly saying it, NASCAR wants to limit the two-by-two racing trend at superspeedways that has been boring fans. By increasing the restrictor-plate size (adding 7-10 horsepower) and recalibrating the pressure-relief valve (reducing the maximum allowed water temperature), NASCAR is giving drivers more control of their speed while forcing them to unhook from other cars or risk overheating.
Q: So will this be the end of pairs racing?
A: Kyle Busch echoes the consensus in the garage by saying, “Probably not. Maybe just a little bit more swapping in between cars; that’s it.”
Q: Points-wise, who has the most to lose this week?
A: Edwards. With an average finish of 20.9 in 14 Cup races at Talladega, the Chase’s most consistent driver (5-for-5 top-10s) needs to avoid a disaster, even if he loses his slim points lead. Fords have shown strength in the Chase, so Edwards needs to be close entering the final two races (he won both in 2011).
Q: Who has nothing to lose?
A: Johnson might need a repeat of his 2007 finish (when he won four of the final five races) to extend his title streak. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. (four consecutive Talladega wins from 2001 to 2003) could salvage an unimpressive Chase by snapping his 124-race winless streak.