This Week in Auto Racing Oct. 18 - 19

(( - NASCAR is at Talladega Superspeedway this weekend, with the third and last race in the Contender Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.


Sprint Cup Series

Geico 500 - Talladega Superspeedway - Talladega, Alabama

Once again, it's crunch time for several drivers who are trying to remain in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Sunday's 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway is the final event in the Contender Round -- the second round in the playoffs for NASCAR's premier series. After Talladega, the Chase field will be trimmed from 12 drivers to eight for Eliminator Round, which includes the races at Martinsville (Oct. 26), Texas (Nov. 2) and Phoenix (Nov. 9).

Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick have already clinched a spot in the Eliminator Round. Logano won the Oct. 5 race at Kansas, and Harvick scored the victory in the Oct. 11 event at Charlotte.

If a driver in the Chase field other than Logano and Harvick wins at Talladega, that person will also automatically advance to the next round. The remaining available positions 1-8 that have not been filled based upon wins will be determined by points. Each driver will then have his points reset to 4,000.

Logano is the current points leader, while Harvick is third in the Chase standings (seven points behind Logano).

The other drivers in the Chase and their points ranking include: Kyle Busch (2nd), Ryan Newman (4th), Carl Edwards (5th), Jeff Gordon (6th), Denny Hamlin (7th), Kasey Kahne (8th), Matt Kenseth (9th), Brad Keselowski (10th), Jimmie Johnson (11th) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12th).

Here are the finishes each Chase driver other than Logano and Harvick needs at Talladega to guarantee himself a position in the Eliminator Round:

Busch - 24th or better; or 25th and at least one lap led; or 26th and most laps led.

Newman - 19th or better; or 20th and at least one lap led; or 21st and most laps led.

Edwards - 18th or better; or 19th and at least one lap led; or 20th and most laps led.

Gordon - 16th or better; or 17th and at least one lap led; or 18th and most laps led.

Hamlin - 15th or better; or 16th and at least one lap led; or 17th and most laps led.

Kahne, Kenseth, Keselowski, Johnson and Earnhardt only control their own destiny by winning the race.

Only one point separates Kahne from Kenseth.

Talladega, where very tight pack racing can create one or more major crashes, is the unpredictable or wild card race in the Chase. It's the one that creates the most tension for the championship contenders.

"Obviously, this is one that everybody has been worried about," Kenseth said. "I haven't even looked at the points, but we're behind and it would be a good race to win. Just go with that idea and go try to race hard and try to be up in the front and try to win."

Either Johnson or Keselowski has won seven of the last eight Sprint Cup championships. Johnson claimed five consecutive titles from 2006-10 and then picked up his sixth last year. Tony Stewart, who's not in the Chase this year, won the championship in 2011, and Keselowski captured the title in 2012.

Keselowski is presently 19 points behind Kahne for the coveted eighth spot, while Johnson and Earnhardt are both 26 points in back of their Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

Johnson and Earnhardt are in a must-win situation at Talladega in order to advance into the next round.

"We've seen races here that are very aggressive and competitive, and then we've seen races where the lead group of cars decided to run along the top and make it a single-file race," Johnson said." There is no rhyme or reason why that happens, so I think it's hard to predict what the race will be like. But I can promise you that with four guys needing to win to transfer (to the Eliminator round), at the end of the race there will definitely be some racing.

"It may be the four of us on the bottom trying to find our way around in a different lane trying to get to the front. But there are at least four that have a really good reason to take chances, be aggressive and try to win. Plus a lot of other teams, with this race being so equal for so many, have a chance to win their first race of the year of the first race of the year. So I'd guess it will be an exciting race but again we just don't know until we get out there."

Johnson has won at Talladega two times (2006 and '11 spring races). He has also been involved in a lot of big crashes that have occurred at this restrictor-plate track over the years.

"I've put a lot of time and thought into my approach for this weekend," he said. "There really isn't a clear vision for how to make it work. Racing for it can get you in trouble. Riding can get you in trouble. If you ride at some point you have to go to the front.

"With this rules package, it's much more difficult to get track position. It seems like with maybe three pits stops to go, you need to have control of the race and maintain it, or at least be in first or second to be at the head of the line and give yourself a chance to win."

Keselowski has two wins at Talladega as well. He was involved in an accident in this year's spring race here.

"It is more important to win than it has been on other weekends," Keselowski said. "That is a challenge, a huge challenge, and Talladega isn't a place you want to go to knowing you have to win but we have confidence knowing we have won here twice before. We had a great car in the spring and got caught up in an accident early and another accident."

Earnhardt is a five-time race winner at Talladega, with his most recent victory there 10 years ago. He won the first restrictor-plate race this season, the Daytona 500.

Forty-six teams are on the entry list for the Geico 500.

Camping World Truck Series

Fred's 250 - Talladega Superspeedway - Talladega, Alabama

After taking the last two weekends off, the Camping World Truck Series will resume its schedule on Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Talladega is the second and final restrictor-plate race for the series this season. Kyle Busch, a Sprint Cup Series regular, won the truck season-opener at Daytona in February.

There are five races to go. After Talladega, the series heads to Martinsville (Oct. 25), Texas (Oct. 31) and then Phoenix (Nov. 7) before the season concludes at Homestead (Nov. 14).

Matt Crafton, the defending series champion, presently holds a 19-point lead over second-place and ThorSport Racing teammate Johnny Sauter. Ryan Blaney trails Crafton by 27 points, while Darrell Wallace Jr. is 33 behind.

"Restrictor-plate racing for the fans is exciting, but as a driver, you are just stuck," Crafton said of Talladega. "It doesn't matter how hard you push the pedal or what you do as a driver, you can't do anything. You are just stuck in the middle of a pack of trucks.

"At a mile-and-a-half track, a driver can make a difference, but at a place like Talladega, it is what it is. You are just waiting for someone to make a mistake that you are going to get caught up in. You have zero control. Racing at Talladega is just like going out and buying a lottery ticket -- you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. There's just no telling, but you've got to play the game."

Crafton is attempting to become the first driver to win back-to-back championships in the 20-year history of the series.

"We've just got to keep on doing what we've been doing, which is racing to win each and every week -- being aggressive when we can be -- but above all, being smart," he added.

Qualifying for this 250-mile race was held on Friday. Tyler Reddick, who is Blaney's teammate at Brad Keselowski Racing, won the pole with a lap at 186.827 mph. Tayler Malsam will share the front row with Reddick after posting a lap at 186.714 mph.

Crafton qualified third, followed by Sauter and Blaney. Wallace failed to make it out of the first qualifying round, as he will start 27th.

"This and Daytona are probably the only two tracks where we don't worry about where we're at on the speed charts," Wallace said.

Sauter is the defending race winner.