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Driver Highlights  ·   Odds & Ends  ·   Practice Notes 

Talladega sure lived up to the billing as being the one race in the Chase to shuffle the deck as 24 cars were involved in a last lap melee, that included several Chase drivers. Brad Keselowski was one of the beneficiaries of the 'big one' as he increased his lead over Jimmie Johnson from five to 14 points. Denny Hamlin slid back from 16 points coming in, to now being 23 points behind.

Only six races remain and it's starting to look like Keselowski has some traction. We all keep trying to find reasons why he won't win a Championship or why a number of others drivers will win it, but the races are diminishing and he's still there on top and increasing his lead.

"Having a 14-point lead heading into Charlotte is pretty big, for sure," said Keselowski, who is 5-to-2 to win the Championship. "Once we are done at Charlotte, we'll be halfway through the Chase, and while there is still a lot of racing left to go, it's better than having to dig out of a hole.

One driver who gained the most from the wreck was Jeff Gordon, who finished second behind Matt Kenseth. He moved up four positions to sixth in points and has now finished third or better on six of his past seven tracks raced on as he heads to Charlotte this week. If he would have had the same type of finish at Chicago, he'd be close to leading in points right now. He finished 35th in that race, but four runner-ups and two third-places in his last seven starts is pretty amazing stuff and why is he is our feature driver to watch this week.

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One of the best reference tools when trying to identify who the top drivers at Charlotte will be is looking at what happened on the season at the races on it's sister tracks, Atlanta and Texas. All three tracks are 1.5-mile high banked tracks that run similar. Each has it's own trait that make it unique, but the set-ups for races on all three are pretty similar. If a driver was fast in any one of those races, there's a pretty good chance they'll be fast in the next one.

The Texas race was run in April and may have the least amount of relevance here just because it was so long ago. The first Charlotte race run in late May is a must reference, but perhaps the most telling information is what we saw last month in Atlanta, just because it's the most recent.

Gordon finished second in that Atlanta race was the second race of his incredible run that not only helped him make the Chase, but now become a new contender to win it all. He's won five times at Charlotte, including his first career win in 1994, and the last coming in 2007. He finished seventh in the May race at Charlotte and for good measure, finished fourth at Texas. Because of how well his team is clicking right now, he should be considered one of the drivers to beat Sunday.

"I am really looking forward to this weekend's race - this is as excited as I've been heading into Charlotte in quite a while," said Gordon. "We had a good car here earlier this year and we've had some strong runs recently.

"We just need to continue to run in the top five and be in position to battle for the win at the end of the race."

The other top-tier driver to beat this week will be Hamlin, who won the Atlanta race last month. Hamlin still looks like the driver to beat in the Championship Chase just because he's been the strongest this season on the type of tracks he'll see in the final six races. In the May Charlotte race, he was runner-up. Then he goes to Kansas, a place he won at in April. Then he's got Martinsville, a place he's won at five times. He finished 12th at Texas, but he's won there twice in his career. He won at Phoenix this season and then he'll close it out at Homestead, a track he's won at before.

"I think our FedEx team is in pretty good shape," Hamlin said. "Obviously, we gave a few points away at Chicago and Dover, but we're still in striking distance. We were able to avoid trouble at Talladega and get a decent finish, and I think we have a good shot of competing for the win almost everywhere we go from here on out. We have wins at five of the last six tracks, and finished second at Charlotte earlier this year. Hopefully, we can do one spot better than that Saturday night."

Everything points to Hamlin being the front-runner to winning the Championship, however, the value is almost gone now. Last week he was 7-to-2. This week he's the 7-to-4 co-favorite with Johnson. He's still a good play, though, despite the loss in value.

Kasey Kahne also was a beneficiary of the wreck at Talladega and moved up two positions to fourth, only 36 points from the lead. Kahne won at Charlotte in May and has been one of the most consistent drivers in the series since finishing runner-up at Kentucky in late June. The bad luck that plagued his team at the beginning of the season is a thing of the past.

Johnson used to dominate Charlotte. He's won there six times over his career, but only once (2009) in his past 13 starts. Almost simultaneously, when Charlotte Motor Speedway dropped the Lowe's sponsorship, Johnson -- sponsored by Lowe's -- seemed to be just a regular driver on the track and not the super freak that at one point won five of six races there. He's had finishes of 28th or worse in three of his past five starts. His best finish this season on the high-banked, 1.5-mile sister tracks was runner-up at Texas, way back in April, and was outside of the top-10 at Charlotte and Atlanta.

If we include all seven of the races run on 1.5-mile tracks this season, including the flatter tracks at Las Vegas, Kentucky, Kansas, and Chicago, only one driver has finished in the top-10 in all seven -- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. These tracks have been his bread and butter this season, but he still hasn't been fast enough to win at.

Martin Truex, Jr. has to get consideration for this race simply because he dominated the Atlanta race, but his lead was taken away because of a late caution. On the restart of the green-white-checker finish, he was toast. But the power was there to put him in that position and it's likely to be there again this week.

Kyle Busch is considered one of the favorites this week due to finishing third or better in four of his past five Charlotte races. In fact, all the Joe Gibbs cars figure to be good this week. Yes, even Joey Logano.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (10/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (5/1)
3) #5 Kasey Kahne (8/1)
4) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
5) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)

  
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