Ingram's Flat Spot On
Texas 'Three-Step' On Tap
by Jonathan Ingram
The Talladega track that inspires hope and dread among championship contenders is in the rearview mirror -- much like the last-lap accident of A.J. Allmendinger that ended Round 7 of the Chase for the Sprint Cup under yellow.
The Talladega race was decided as the tandems led by Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick emerged from the late afternoon shadows cast by the high banks just past Turn 1. Or, if you prefer, the race was decided in the piercing late afternoon sunshine at the entrance to Turn 1 behind all the Chase contenders. That's where Allmendinger's Ford pitched, rolled and jerked like a butterfly on its way to smashing the inside retaining wall.
The multi-car schlimozzle just after the field bellowed past the white flag caught mid-pack runner Allmendinger out and put a halt to an otherwise safe 200 mph race under NASCAR's "freeze the field" formula after such incidents. It handed the victory to a richly deserving Bowyer by a smidgen and the "first in class" honors to runner-up Harvick, the top finisher among Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Hamlin, the two others who would be this year's king.
Maybe, just maybe, the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a playoff format that has suffered during the four-year reign of defending champ Johnson, will emerge from the shadows a winner as well. Separated by only 38 points, it's safe to say Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick will not be balloon-footing their way through Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.
It's too early to tell if the Sprint Cup might be again decided on the last lap as in the now hazy memory of Version I in 2004. That first Chase was decided by the fact Kurt Busch's wobbling wheel disengaged just as he entered to the pit road under green, enabling him to stay in the hunt and eventually win the title on the last lap.
The points margin between the top-three drivers is the closest with three races remaining since the inception of the Chase. Johnson, the four-time champ, leads Hamlin by 14 points and Harvick by 38. The 14-point spread between first and second is the second closest since 2004.
So who has the edge headed into Texas this weekend? Technically, it's Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Lowe's Chevy team, since he still leads the points.
"We've known all along that the No. 11 (Hamlin) and the No. 29 (Harvick) would be strong in all the Chase races and my good tracks are their good tracks as well," said Johnson. "These final three tracks I consider all good ones for the No. 48 team and I know they are for the No. 11 and the No. 29. I think the fans are going to have something exciting to watch and it's a very, very small points margin right now. I've just got to go out and lead laps and win races."
Despite four consecutive titles, Johnson admits he'll have to step up his game. "What's worked the last three or four years for me might not work this year," he said. "I think there's a level of taking chances at the right time that I've always done a good job with in the Chase and I see the No. 29 and the No. 11 doing that as well and it's going to be a race from here on out. It will be interesting to see how each of us deals with the pressure of these final three races."
For his part, Harvick says it will come down to who makes the fewest mistakes, not necessarily the most aggressive driver. "The driver who makes the fewest mistakes will win," he said.
All three frontrunners -- Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick -- have had success at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. Johnson won there in 2007 and finished second in the spring race. Hamlin won in the spring and was the runner-up in the fall race at Texas last season. Harvick is coming off two consecutive finishes in the Top 10 at the house that Bruton Smith built near Ft. Worth.
There have been setbacks in Texas as well. Last year, Johnson wrecked and finished 38th, tightening the points gap dramatically. In 2005, title contender Greg Biffle had a lug-nut issue on pit road, essentially killing his championship hopes.
But no one sees Texas in the same light as Talladega, still a spooky place after all these years but a relatively safe place during the first Sprint Cup race ever run on Halloween at the 2.66-mile Alabama track. "I asked for nobody to really get killed here this weekend," said Hamlin afterward, "and to let us settle it on the race track where our cars and our teams can make a difference and us drivers can make a difference. That's what we got. We've got a tight one and I'm looking forward to the last three (races)."
It certainly was another excellent race for NASCAR during what has been an eventful Chase, unless you were Allmendinger and got shot out of the draft like a watermelon seed and into a wall one lap from the finish or any of the other drivers caught up in the five-car "Big One." Allmendinger walked away and one hopes his misfortune was not a foreshadowing of things to come for Richard Petty Motorsports due to the financial troubles of team owner George Gillett.
For his part, Bowyer, a garrulous Midwestern good ol' boy, was beaming like the sun in his native Kansas after emerging with a coveted redemption victory. Along with the showing by Richard Childress Racing teammate Harvick, it underscored that an illegal chassis suffered by Bowyer after winning Round 1 of the Chase in New Hampshire was a one-off situation and not a crutch for an otherwise gimpy team.
"I love restrictor plate racing," said Bowyer in victory lane. "This is what it's all about. This feels awesome to come out here and do this."
More excitement is likely in store this weekend in Texas where the Chase contenders will surely be tap dancing -- keeping up with each other's relative positions. Given the track's history of finishes decided by fuel mileage, it may be a suspenseful race as well.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com