NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Lagging Contenders Face Last Real Chance At Talladega

There are just four races in the NASCAR Sprint Series season and it’s chase for the Cup. Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 500 (2 PM ET, ESPN) looks like the last, best chance, for lagging drivers to rejuvenate their championship hopes.

Right now, the race is a two-man fight between leader Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, who is four points out. Kevin Harvick can make a credible case as a dark horse at (-29), as can Jeff Gordon (-36) and Kyle Busch (-37). These three potential challengers would still be in contention if they hold steady this week, although it would take virtual perfection the final three weeks.

Everyone else has a lot of ground to make up, and Talladega Superspeedway is the place where dramatic things can happen. “Restrictor-plate racing–or pack racing means a big crackup, more often than not,” said TheSportsNotebook’s resident NASCAR advisor, my brother Bill. “Someone who drives a nice safe race can win.” He further added that if someone–for example Greg Biffle at (-58) off the pace, where to win in such fashion, while the leaders got caught in a wreck they couldn’t recover from, it would change the dynamic of the race.

Talladega is the last track where this kind of dynamic will exist though. Texas, Phoenix and Miami are the last three stops on the circuit, and while I suppose crazy things can happen anytime, they are most likely to happen on Sunday.

If we focus strictly on Kenseth and Johnson–and for all our discussion of the dark horses and challengers, TheSportsNotebook is not blind to the reality that one of these two men will almost certainly be crowned champion on November 17 in Miami–then we see that each has a similar track record at Talladega in recent years.

There have been seven races at the Alabama track since 2010. Kenseth and Johnson have each won one time. They’ve each had a couple disasters, the kind challengers are hoping for this time around. Their average finish is virtually identical–Kenseth at 16th and Johnson at 17th. They each finished in the Top 10 when NASCAR came here earlier in the season. It’s tough to find an edge for either one coming into Sunday.

Other drives with recent wins at Talladega include Clint Bowyer, who has won twice, and is on the list of drivers for whom Sunday is now or never. Harvick has a recent win, and Kyle Busch won here in 2008. Another winner here in 2012 was Brad Keselowski, the defending champ who did not make the playoffs this year. Keselowski won last week’s race as a non-playoff driver and is the reason the standings more or less held steady.

The betting odds for Sunday reflect how wide open Talladega can be, as oddsmakers are very conservative. There is no anointed favorite in the 5-1 or 6-1 range, as is usually the case. Instead six drivers are priced at 10-1–Kyle Busch, Johnson, Kenseth, Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Junior and Harvick. Four more are slotted at 15-1. The Vegas house is clearly hedging its bets on this one.

But there can be no bet-hedging for drivers who need one last desperate move to get into the championship discussion. Make note of the names Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Junior, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne. By Sunday night, if you’re not hearing how they got a dramatic win on a day filled with pileups, you will likely not need to remember them again until next February.