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Harris: Survival Is Goal This Week

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, October 26 2010

The April race at Talladega was just your typical race at the X-factor track. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

It’s Wild Card Week in NASCAR’s Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.

Talladega Superspeedway is always the biggest question mark among the 10 races in the stock car postseason. Anything can – and usually does – happen on the high-banked 2.66-mile oval; NASCAR’s longest oval.

Sunday’s race at Martinsville – NASCAR’s shortest oval – was a typical short track race with lots of rubbing and bumping leading to even more griping and temper tantrums.

In the end, though, it was the usual suspects up front. Denny Hamlin won for the third straight time and the fifth time in the last nine races. Jimmie Johnson, who has won four Martinsville races during that same stretch, wound up fifth.

That was a somewhat disappointing showing for Johnson at one of his favorite tracks. Combined with Hamlin’s victory, Johnson’s showing cut his points lead to six with four races to go.  On the positive side, though, Johnson did finish in the top five for the fifth straight race.

The third serious championship contender, Kevin Harvick, finished third at Martinsville and sliced his margin behind Johnson to just 62 points.

A week ago, all three of the contenders were talking about winning at Martinsville. Hamlin even did a Muhammad Ali impression and predicted his win.

But now comes Talladega, where the goal for all three contenders has to be survival.

None of the trio has a particularly outstanding record on the big track with the 33-degree banking.

Harvick did win there earlier this year, but that is his first Talladega win in 19 Cup starts. He has accumulated only four top-fives and eight top-10s. Harvick’s average starting positions is 22.2, while his average finishing position at the Alabama oval is 15.5

Hamlin has only raced at Talladega nine times. He has three top fives and no wins. His starting average if 16.0, while his finishing average is 19.3.

And this is a track where Johnson, who seems to have an advantage at almost every track in the Chase, has often come up short. In 17 starts, the four-time defending Cup champion has one win, four top-fives and seven top-10s. He average start is 9.9, but his average finish is 17.8.

It seems Harvick may have the biggest advantage at Talladega, based on the fact that he has been running at the finish of all of his 19 starts. JJ has finished just 10 of 17 and Hamlin seven of nine.

The key at Talladega is to somehow avoid the inevitable big wreck that usually takes out or badly damaged anywhere from 10 to 20 cars sometime during the race.

“I’m really trying not to be emotionally attached to things until we get out of Talladega,’’ Johnson said when asked if he is concerned about his small points lead. “So much can happen at Talladega.

“Last year, Mark (Martin) was right there with me in the points. I’m running sixth on the track (and) he’s running seventh coming  to the checkered flag. His car gets hit, he is upside down. I’m just one spot ahead of him (on the track) and I finish the race and get a bunch of points.’’

So Johnson says he will assess the points situation after Sunday’s race.

“I’m not worrying,’’ he said. “Three races left after that. If we’re close, we’ll race like hell.’’

Hamlin sounded a similar note.

“Honestly, (Talladega) is the only Chase race that we have that you can’t necessarily control your destiny,’’ he said. “Hard to know what is the right place to put yourself in.  Anybody can lead that race at any time they want to.  It’s just who decides to put themselves in positions that don’t always work out.

“We could go out of there and come out with a 50-, 60-point lead or be that far behind.  You just don’t know.  All we can do is run that race the way we always do.’’

And Harvick, who like Hamlin is looking for his first Cup title, is the dark horse in this Chase. But the regular-season champion is not backing down.

“We kept the No. 48 (Johnson) behind us and the No. 11 (Hamlin) in sight,’’ Harvick said. “Everybody said this was a two-horse race and we were right there in the middle of it, so, it’s a lot of fun.

“Right now we’ve got four more weeks. I’m looking forward to Talladega and just racing hard.”

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, October 26 2010
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