Midway through the Chase for the Cup, NASCAR's 10-race playoff to determine the 2011 Sprint Cup champion, eight of the 12 drivers who qualified for the Chase appear to be still in hot pursuit, including Cup points leader Carl Edwards.
Edwards, from Columbia, Mo., has never been in the lead in the standings this late in the season. This includes the 2008 season, when Edwards won nine races but finished second to Jimmie Johnson in the final standings. Edwards has 16 top-five finishes and 22 top-tens in 31 races this season and has been on top of the driver standings for a total of 17 weeks.
If the driver of the No. 99 Aflac Ford for Roush Fenway Racing can hold on to his lead through the remaining five Chase races, he will capture his first Sprint Cup Championship.
Edwards owns a five-point lead over Kevin Harvick and seven points over Matt Kenseth. Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Brad Keslowski, Kurt Busch and Johnson, who trails the leader by 35 points, round out the top eight in the current standings.
"I'm racing as hard as I can, trying to get every point I can," Edwards said after last Sunday's third-place finish in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "That's how we have raced all season. It has not worked out for some wins, but that's mostly been strategy and stuff like that.
"I think right now, you have to get everything you can," he said, "...just keep doing what we've been doing, and if it works out, it works out."
The next challenge in the 2011 Chase will be 2.66-mile Talladega (Alabama) Superspeedway, one of the two restrictor-plate venues on the NASCAR circuit (Daytona International Speedway is the other). The Superspeeday racetracks are known for their length and fast, wide-open, three- and-four wide style of racing, even though the speeds of the stock cars are limited by the use of restrictor plates. Talledega, especially, has had its share of spectacular crashes over the years, which, of course, is on everyone's minds this week following IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon's fatal crash last weekend in the IndyCar Series' season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
In the spring of 2009, Edwards was involved in a frightening crash at Talledega with nine laps to go that sent his car airborne. The No, 99 car turned completely over and landed in the barrier fence. Fortunately Edwards was not injured.
Drivers in the Sprint Cup Series feel that because of the safety changes NASCAR has made in the cars and at the racetracks in recent years the cars are safer than they've ever been, even at fast, long tracks like Talladega. Said four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon: "I wouldn't compare an IndyCar at Las Vegas to Talladega with a stock car. They're polar opposites," he said. "Looking at aerodynamics, the weight of our cars, the fact that there are full fenders. I think that NASCAR has implemented some incredible safety features for our cars over the years to allow us to go to Talladega."
"I feel very safe, especially in a stock car with the roll cage," said Kurt Busch, who is currently seventh in the Chase standings. ""(IndyCars) don't have the safety design that a stock car has, and the speeds we run aren't as great as the IndyCars."
You can expect to see a lot of so-called tandem racing on Sunday at Talladega as the drivers pair up with drafting partners to get an aerodynamic boost on the long, spacious track surface. It is also called tag-team racing, and has become the universal racing style at restrictor-plate tracks. The drivers and teams actually set up their drafting partners in advance of the race.
Edwards is expected to pair up with Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne of Wood Brothers Racing. Bayne helped push Edwards to victory last Friday in the Nationwide Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. There is a certain amount of pressure, he said, that comes with being chosen to push the points leader at a tricky venue (Talledega) this late in the season.
The race start for the Good Sam Club 500 at Talledega on Sunday is 1 p.m. (CT). Clint Bowyer of Emporia, Kan., was last year's winner.