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GEICO 500 Preview

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Last Saturday night’s Charlotte race had some great post-race drama, but wait until you see what happens Sunday in the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway when three former Cup champions (Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have their seasons and championship hopes on the chopping block.

They’re the last four in the Chase standings with five races remaining and Talladega decides who moves on to the next round where only eight drivers will participate.

The only drivers locked in to advance to the next stage of three races are Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick on the basis of their wins in the past two races. Kyle Busch can advance with a finish of 24th or better, Ryan Newmand 19th or better, Carl Edwards 18th or better, Jeff Gordon 16th or better and Denny Hamlin 15th or better. For the bottom four, they’re probably going to have to win to advance. At least that's their only sure way of advancing.

The drivers that have to win to get in have all fared extremely well at Talladega over their great careers, but the deck is stacked up against them like no other track. The edge they hold in the 32 other non-restrictor plate races is completely wiped out. At Talladega, 38 of the 43 cars starting have a legitimate shot of winning like no where else. At Texas for example, there are maybe 20 cars a case could be made for to win where the rest of the field is insignificant other than being obstacles for the elite teams to pass.

The most interesting storyline of all is that two of the drivers that are in the bottom four desperate to get in: past Cup champions Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski, who got into a fight following Saturday’s night’s Charlotte race.

Keselowski showed some frustration on the track with some of his actions, which he was retaliating for on an early instance, and it all boiled over when Kenseth put Keselowski in a head lock, or at least tried to.

This is all so awesome, almost like WWE, but real. Although the WWE could write a script with a 15-year veteran never losing his cool throughout, and actually being pushed around by a few, until he finally snaps and says he’s not going to take it anymore.

That’s what makes Kenseth actions Saturday night so interesting. He’s is as cool and relaxed as any driver in NASCAR history. He never cracks, but with the season on the brink, this new version of the Chase has definitely infused some new heat at this juncture of the season we have never seen before. If it can make Kenseth’s stack blow, it has really struck a nerve.

Even though there are so many other drivers participating that have a chance to win that we never talk about, like David Ragan or David Gilliland, I would expect Kenseth to fare the best out of Johnson, Keselowski and Earnhardt Jr. And if one of those drivers eighth in points or better -- No. 8 Kasey Kahne has a 1-point edge over No. 9 Kenseth -- wrecks early, which is entirely possible, someone can sneak in and Kenseth has the edge.

Not only does Kenseth have a 2012 Talladega win or two Daytona 500 wins under his belt, he’s also with Joe Gibbs Racing that have just a slim advantage over the other equal cars when restrictor-plates are mandated. He led the most laps between the four plate races last season and teammate Denny Hamlin won the first Talladega race back in May.

The most impressive driver in the first race was Greg Biffle who led a race-high 58 laps and finished second. The Roush-Racing program has been very competitive in plate races over recent years with wins by Kenseth, Ragan and Jamie McMurray.

Then you have Earnhardt Jr. who has won five times at Talladega, Jeff Gordon who has won six times and Jimmie Johnson who has won twice. For Johnson, this will be a new experience for him at Talladega where he’s normally laying low trying to point race with no real intention of winning, but rather to just keep the car on the track with no damage. Johnson basically has to win for any chance of winning his seventh Cup title.
Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 earlier this season, but that car is in the showroom at Daytona USA for the year. He has five Talladega wins, but none since 2004.

Because of his team affiliation and skills at this track, he deserves to be the favorite this week. The crowd would go absolutely nuts if he wins. 

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #20 Matt Kenseth (12/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (12/1)
3) #4 Kevin Harvick (12/1)
4) #2 Brad Keselowski (12/1)
5) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10/1)  

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