Talladega is a must-win for three notable drivers

Charlotte left Johnson, Keselowski and Earnhardt in big Chase trouble.

Talladega is a must-win for three notable drivers
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Brad Keselowski, Team Penske Ford
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jase Robertson and Brad Keselowski
Dale Earnhardt Jr. drives Elvis' prized 1973 Stutz Blackhawk III
Brad Keselowski, Team Penske Ford
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

When the smoke cleared, the dust settled, and the fists stopped flying on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, three of the most high-profile drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series were back where they started. 

Six days earlier, in a race at Kansas Speedway fraught with peril for Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup contenders, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, brash 2012 champion Brad Keselowski and perennial most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered the severest of consequences. 

All three wrecked in the Hollywood Casino 400. Leaving Kansas, Keselowski was 10th in the Chase standings, Earnhardt 11th and Johnson 12th, with a cut to the top eight Chase drivers coming Oct. 19 at Talladega. 

In a Saturday-night race at Charlotte that could have provided redemption for the three drivers, none found it. 

Early in the race, the shifter in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet broke off in the driver’s hand. Requiring a push off pit road after his crew attempted repairs, Earnhardt lost a lap on the track and never regained it. He finished 20th. 

When caution slowed the race on Lap 327 of 334, crew chief Chad Knaus told Johnson to bring the No. 48 Chevy to pit road for fresh tires, a strategic error as it turned out. Johnson had been running fourth, but with two laps left, he restarted 10th behind nine cars that had stayed on track under the yellow. 

In the mad dash that followed, Johnson was shuffled back to 17th and finished there. 

Keselowski was fifth for that same restart on Lap 333, but contact in the first corner with Denny Hamlin’s No.11 Toyota sent the Blue Deuce dropping through the field like a stone. Keselowski finished 16th but his night was far from over.

Hardly a 'cool-down' lap 

On the cool-down lap, Keselowski deliberately clipped Hamlin’s Camry. Near the entrance to pit road, he slammed into Kenseth’s Toyota. Once out of their cars, Keselowski and Hamlin screamed at each other over intervening crewmen and NASCAR officials. 

As Keselowski was walking between haulers, Kenseth jumped him, angry that Keselowski had hit his car after Kenseth had removed his head-and-neck restraint and unbuckled his harness. It was Keselowski, however, who received an invitation to the NASCAR transporter, where he was asked to explain his actions. 

The bottom line? Johnson and Earnhardt ended the night tied for last among Chase drivers, 26 points behind Kasey Kahne in eighth place. Keselowski is 10th in the standings, 19 points behind Kahne, and may face sanctions that would drop him even farther back.

Realistically, though, the task at hand is clear-cut for Johnson, Keselowski and Earnhardt: either win at Talladega or face the harsh reality that the Chase will continue without them. 

You have three drivers with the same objective, but there’s one major problem. There’s only one trophy and only one golden ticket to the Eliminator round of the Chase.

Will be a hard-fought race 

And it’s not as if Johnson, Keselowski and Earnhardt will be the only three drivers going all-out for the victory at the 2.66-mile superspeedway. Kahne has a one-point lead over Kenseth for the final transfer spot to the next round of the Chase, and the best course of action for both drivers is to race hard and stay as close to the front as possible. 

There are 31 other non-Chase drivers for whom Talladega is an expanded window of opportunity. As history has shown us on numerous occasions, the restrictor plate is a great equalizer, and drivers who might need divine intervention to win at an open-motor track can take a checkered flag in the draft at NASCAR’s longest closed course. 

Earnhardt has five wins at Talladega, but none since 2004. Johnson and Keselowski have won there twice each, most recently in 2011 and 2012, respectively. 

But if their path to the next round of the Chase is clearly defined, it is also more complicated that it would be at an open-motor track. 

Perhaps that’s why emotions reached the boiling point at Charlotte, as the stark prospect of having to win at Talladega to keep championship hopes alive came sharply into focus for three of the sport’s biggest stars.

NASCAR Wire Service, Reid Spencer

shares
comments
Bad Brad is back

Previous article

Bad Brad is back

Next article

Catch me if you can

Catch me if you can
Load comments
From the archive: Dale Earnhardt’s final Autosport interview Prime

From the archive: Dale Earnhardt’s final Autosport interview

The death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500 shocked NASCAR to the core. At the Daytona 24 Hours, two weeks before his fatal accident, ‘The Intimidator’ shared his expectations of challenging for an eighth Cup title with JONATHAN INGRAM, in an article first published in the 15 February 2001 issue of Autosport magazine. Little did we know then what tragedy would unfold…

NASCAR Cup
Feb 18, 2021
The lasting NASCAR legacy after Dale Earnhardt’s death Prime

The lasting NASCAR legacy after Dale Earnhardt’s death

On February 18, 2001, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Dale Earnhardt – the fearless ‘Intimidator’ – was in his element at Daytona International Speedway. While his own DEI team’s cars ran 1-2 towards the finish line, his famed #3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Monte Carlo was playing rear gunner to block any late runs from the chasing pack. As the cars tore through Turns 3 and 4 on that fateful final lap, Earnhardt maintained the strongarm tactics that encapsulated his persona… but his actions in those moments sadly proved to be his last.

NASCAR Cup
Feb 18, 2021
Inspired by Pitbull, the “revolution” sweeping through NASCAR Prime

Inspired by Pitbull, the “revolution” sweeping through NASCAR

The NASCAR Cup Series is changing. Whether it be the gradual morphing out the seasoned drivers of yesterday as the next generation step up, a radical calendar shake-up featuring more road courses than ever before and the prospect of an all-new car on the horizon, stock car racing’s highest level is nearing the end of a huge facelift.

NASCAR Cup
Feb 16, 2021
The NASCAR storylines to watch out for in 2021 Prime

The NASCAR storylines to watch out for in 2021

This weekend's Daytona 500 kickstarts a NASCAR Cup season that promises plenty of intrigue courtesy of new owners and a refreshed calendar. Here's what you need to know ahead of the new season…

NASCAR Cup
Feb 13, 2021
Why Kyle Larson can't blow his big shot at redemption Prime

Why Kyle Larson can't blow his big shot at redemption

From a disgraced NASCAR exile, Kyle Larson has been given a chance of redemption by the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports squad. Effectively replacing seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is no easy billing, but Larson has every intention of repaying the team's faith...

NASCAR Cup
Feb 11, 2021
Why Roger Penske is an American motorsport icon Prime

Why Roger Penske is an American motorsport icon

In this exclusive one-on-one interview, Roger Penske reveals the inner drive that has made him not only a hugely successful team owner and businessman but also the owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar. He spoke to David Malsher-Lopez.

IndyCar
Dec 28, 2020
Why NASCAR's latest second-generation champion is just getting started Prime

Why NASCAR's latest second-generation champion is just getting started

Chase Elliott's late charge to the 2020 NASCAR Cup title defied predictions that it would be a Kevin Harvick versus Denny Hamlin showdown. While the two veterans are showing no signs of slowing down, Elliott's triumph was a window into NASCAR's future…

NASCAR Cup
Nov 18, 2020
Why Kyle Larson deserves his second chance in a cancel culture Prime

Why Kyle Larson deserves his second chance in a cancel culture

“You can’t hear me? Hey n*****” Those fateful words uttered by Kyle Larson, spoken into his esports headset on April 12, were directed at his sim racing spotter – but instead they quickly became amplified around the world via social media, including his own Twitch stream.

NASCAR Cup
Oct 29, 2020