TALLADEGA, ALA. - If Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Good Sam’s Club 500 were a reality television show surely it would be Survivor Talladega.
Like what happens in that grandaddy of all reality shows, there will be someone kicked off The Chase for the Championship island come Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway.
And right now it is a battle between bitter rivals Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Kurt Busch in the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge as to who will be still standing after the sixth of 10 Chase races.
If either five-time champion Johnson or one-time champion Busch posts a result out of the top 20, they might as well pack their bags because their run at the Sprint Cup trophy will be over.
Already eliminated are Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, who was effectively voted out after the first race at Chicagoland; Ryan Newman in the No. 39 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet, essentially gone after New Hampshire; Dale Earnhardt Jr., in the No. 88 HMS Chevrolet, out after Dover; and Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 HMS Chevroletm kaput after Kansas.
Johnson’s wreck at Charlotte last Saturday night that resulted in a 34th-place finish and put him 35 points behind Chase leader Carl Edwards has left him perilously close to seeing his five-year reign as Cup champion come to an end.
And Busch’s pair of 13th-place finishes at Kansas and Charlotte leaves him a very vulnerable 27 points back. One more finish in the teens and it may be a week when both former champions are gone from the Chase.
Johnson did show some life on Saturday, putting his Chevrolet on the front row in qualifying beside Hendrick teammate Mark Martin.
Close behind is Johnson’s drafting partner Earnhardt, who qualified sixth.
Those two proved in the spring race at Talladega — won by Johnson with a huge push from Earnhardt — that they deserve the favourite’s role come Sunday.
Busch, meanwhile, with a 14th-place qualifying result, is pretty much cast adrift.
He has already said that there appears to be no hooking up with his Penske teammate Brad Keselowski. In fact, Keselowski told The Sporting News that Busch is only Plan B.
“I think ‘Plan A’ is definitely is to work with Dave Blaney,” Keselowski said . “I’m excited about Dave. He seems to be a real a real good guy that you can talk to and work with.
“I still have Kurt. ‘Plan C’ is the rest of the field.”
So Busch will be looking for someone, anyone, to help him get to the front and avoid being erased from the championship picture.
He said he has done the walk through the NASCAR garage seeking out partners who he feels would help him on Sunday, although he didn’t reveal who those drivers would be.
“You just hope that you have a good list of them and that you have a couple of choices at the end,” he said. “If you’re out of choices and you’re the one guy without a chair when the music stops, it’s just like getting eliminated in musical chairs.”
For Johnson his choices are not nearly as stark — even if he loses touch with Earnhardt he has both Martin and Gordon to dance to the front with should the need arise.
No doubt, however, that his preference is Earnhardt, a five-time winner himself at Talladega’s 2.66-mile oval.
Johnson would also like to get the bonus pounts available for leading a lap and leading the most laps.
“Well, it would be nice to go out and lead a lap early and get that out of the way,” he said. “I’ve got (Earnhardt) Junior up there close by and if we can just go and lead laps and try to take care of things from there.”
Most importantly, Johnson said there is absolutely no tension between him and Earnhardt over how to plan out the race, somethig that is certainly missing for Busch.
“We’re having a great time and he’s a ton of fun to work with and he had all of us laughing a lot (in practice),” Johnson said. “So I’m looking forward to it; it will be a lot of fun.”
It could be not so much fun for Busch, however.