So, the top three contenders in the race for the Sprint Cup have arrived at Talladega Superspeedway and have turned their first laps. What do we know?
Another one is fast enough. Jimmie Johnson ran 196.338 in that same practice and sat out the day’s second practice session.
The third-place driver in points, Kevin Harvick, was 31st fastest in the first practice but wasn’t concerned enough to run practice laps in session two.
So what we know is that it’s Talladega week and no one really knows what to expect. Very typical.
“Obviously, at this place anything can happen,” Harvick said Friday. “Whether you are leading the race or running last, you can wind up in somebody else’s mess, but I enjoy the restrictor-plate racing, and it’s obviously something you have to think about a lot. There is a lot of strategy involved in it, and you have to have fast cars.”
Harvick won the spring race at Talladega, then repeated in the summer restrictor-plate race at Daytona International Speedway, Talladega’s sister track. He figures to try to run at the front Sunday. Johnson typically prefers the second half of the field and its relative safety. Hamlin might wind up in the middle.
Johnson leads Hamlin by six points and Harvick by 62 entering the seventh race of the Chase.
“We really won’t have a firm decision on how we will race until Saturday afternoon, and Gil [crew chief Gil Martin] and I will sit down and decide on how we want to approach the race,” Harvick said. “How we approached it last time – we may approach it that way or we may not. It just depends on the performance of the race car and where we qualify.”
Qualifying for Sunday’s Amp Energy Juice 500 is scheduled at 12:15 p.m. (ET) Saturday.
Harvick described Talladega racing as “just a big, high-speed moving chess game, and you have to put yourself in position for the last couple of laps to try to be able to make the move that you think is right to win the race. It all worked out just as you would planned it out in the spring. I don’t know that it will ever work out that smooth again, but, for us, we were able to dodge the wrecks and put ourselves in position for those last couple of laps to make that slingshot move.
“But you just never know if it’s going to come down to a big pack or if it’s going to be a two-car breakaway or are you going to be racing another two-car breakaway. So a lot of it is circumstances as to how you adjust. But a fast car makes things a lot easier.”
It’s a given that Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick will have potent cars Sunday. But trouble lurks around every turn at a track where even the craftiest driver can be bitten.
“There is a lot of risk at every track we go to, but at this – we’ve all been here enough to see it – there really is no safe place to be on the track. It seems like you can prolong your opportunity to crash until later in the event, which is a strategy we’ve played over the years. But, at the end, when everyone is still trying to get the best finish they can, it’s just full chaos at that point.”
Johnson is hoping for the best Sunday and to be able to be in position post-Talladega to make a strong run through the season’s final three races – at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.
“If we come out of here close to the No. 29 [Harvick] and the No. 11 [Hamlin], I know we have a great chance to race in from there,” Johnson said. “If things go our way and we have a gap or something at that point, then we just have to be smart in the final three races and race accordingly.
“So, we’ll know a lot more Sunday afternoon. We’ll all have a better understanding of how the final three races will go. We’ll just do our best until then and try to stay out of trouble.”
Hamlin said he expects to be either near the front or near the back – not in the difficult middle.
“We’re definitely going to be in between them [Johnson and Harvick] somewhere, I think,” Hamlin said. “If I’m not in the top-five positions, I would like to see myself in the bottom five just because you eliminate a little bit of risk not being middle pack. Middle pack is the absolute worst place. If I’m there at any point of the race, I don’t want to be and I’m looking for an escape route.”
All three championship contenders will have teammates with strong cars Sunday, but it remains to be seen how that might impact the event – and the championship.
“It is so difficult to find each other and get linked up at the end of the race, so I don’t think you can really strategize on how you get together,” Johnson said. “You just look for one another. I’m hopeful that my teammates will keep an eye out for me, and, if I need to get into a slot, will cut me some slack. At the end of the race, if they have a decision to push two or three different cars, that they would pick pushing me and help us out.
“I also think that it is important during to race to make sure that you have other friends on the track just to increase your odds of someone pushing you given the opportunity. I feel good with my three teammates and hopefully the Stewart-Haas cars, as well. I will just try to build more relationships on the track during the first 400 miles.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.