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Driver Highlights  ·   Odds & Ends  ·   Practice Notes 

Dodge sure picked a fine time to jump out of NASCAR. Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski has won two of the three Chase races thus far, leads the points and has done it all with a Dodge engine that appears to get much better fuel mileage than Chevy, Ford or Toyota. We’ve seen John Elway walk away from the game with a Super Bowl win and Ted Williams hit a home run in his final at-bat, but watching a manufacturer walk away with a Championship -- in this era -- would be a first.

Dodge left NASCAR in 1977 and made a return in 2001 under Ray Evernham’s guidance. They’ve had some success since coming back with a few wins, but nothing as steady as what Keselowski is doing right now with five wins on the season and seven races to go.

Of course, it’s only three races and there’s a lot of things that can and will happen, such as Jimmie Johnson staying hot after finishing fourth or better in the Chase races and Denny Hamlin having the edge on at least six of the seven tracks coming up.

The one track that no one is supposed to have an edge on is Talladega, site of this week's race. This is supposed to be the one race out of the 10 Chase races that is a wild card where the deck can be shuffled dramatically. A driver and team can do everything correct during the week, run a perfect race and then out of nowhere, get caught in the middle of a 10-car pile up.

No driver can dominate Talladega, but Talladega itself can dominate any driver, which is why we see no clear-cut, single-digit favorite in the odds offered by the LVH Super Book.

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In Keselowski’s case, he may be one of the few drivers who expects to win. He took the checkers in the spring race and also captured his first Cup victory on the track in 2009. Keeping with the theme of his first three Chase races, he'll be using a brand new chassis this week to get the job done.

This season, in the three plate races, we’ve seen a Dodge, Chevy and Ford win. Chevy has been the star at Talladega over the last two decades, but the Roush Fords have been very strong over the past three seasons of plate races, particularly at Daytona.

None of the current crop of Roush drivers have ever won at Talladega, but Jamie McMurray did while driving for them in 2009. In the spring race, Matt Kenseth finished third and Greg Biffle fifth, giving indication that their time is coming soon.

With eight laps remaining in the spring race, Kenseth was leading and looked to be on pace to get his first Talladega win, but then the big one came with eight laps remaining. Nine cars were involved in a wreck, and when they restarted, Kenseth was easy prey for Keselowski.

Kenseth won the Daytona 500 this season and will be using the car that sat on the pole in the July Daytona race. His chance of winning his second Cup title is gone, but he could salvage something by grabbing a win Sunday. He's the 10-to-1 co-favorite to win along with Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

The interesting part about the Chase race at Talladega is the approach that drivers near the top of the standings take. They are overly cautious and drive with a constant fear, trying to stay out of trouble.

Johnson has two Talladega wins over his career, but both came in the spring with no fear of points. Johnson has routinely dropped to the back of the field and waited for the final 10 laps to move up. It’s probably a smart strategy since he’s won five championships using the tactic. But between all the aero changes in plate races that occurred coming into this season, it was much harder for drivers sitting back to catch up.

Johnson has finished in the top-10 of the fall Talladega races in four of his five Championship seasons, but this season he has failed to finish in any of the plate races. He'll be using the same chassis that finished 35th or worse in May's Talladega race and July's Daytona race.

The laid back approach could be costly because there doesn’t appear to be any way Keselowski is going to play that game. Although early in the Chase, this could be a race where he gains even more momentum and puts extra pressure on Johnson to make a move. And based on Johnson's strategy this season on these type of races, a change is in order.

Denny Hamlin has an 18.2 average finish at Talladega and his only plate win came in the Bud Shootout at Daytona -- a non-points race -- during his rookie season. Like Johnson -- or maybe not, Hamlin may play it cautiously knowing he has six tracks remaining where he’ll hold a big advantage over the others.

Finishing 20th or worse would be devastating for any of the contenders.

Clint Bowyer is currently fourth in points, 25 behind Keselwoski, and no one seems to be talking about him. He won the fall 2010 and 2011 races at Talladega while driving a Richard Childress Chevy, but in his first run there in his Michael Waltrip Toyota, he finished sixth, suggesting he's quite comfortable in his new surroundings. This could be a race where Bowyer leaps into major contention for the Championship while everyone else contending for a title drives gingerly. He'll be using the car that finished eighth in the Budweiser Shootout.

Not only is Bowyer a play at 15-to-1 this week to win, but also at 15-to-1 to win the Championship. Of the six tracks remaining following Talladega, a strong case could be made for Bowyer as the top candidate behind Hamlin and Johnson to fare best. Talladega is definitely his wild card among all the drivers.

Earnhardt, Jr is a five-time Talladega winner, but hasn’t won there since 2004. He’s currently 39 points out of first and has a lot ground to make up. Some old school magic could get the NASCAR nation buzzing again.

Jeff Gordon is a six-time winner at Talladega and is the last driver to sweep a season, which Keselowski will be trying to match. Coming into this race, Gordon has finished third or better on five of the last six tracks. He is one driver in the field that will be letting it all hang out with a total disregard for his points.

Because this race is such a crapshoot, we have to consider other drivers outside the Chase more than any other track. Four of the past eight fall Talladega races have been won by non-Chase drivers. Also, of note, no driver has ever won the Championship after wining this race under the Chase format. Drivers outside the Chase that present the best opportunity at winning are Jeff Burton and Jamie McMurray.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #15 Clint Bowyer (15/1)
2) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (10/1)
3) #17 Matt Kenseth (10/1)
4) #24 Jeff Gordon (12/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (10/1)

  
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