Sunday's 500-mile chess match at the Talladega Superspeedway could serve as an equalizer in the race for the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
The Good Sam Club 500 (Sunday, 1 p.m. on ESPN) has often played that role throughout the previous seven Chase playoffs. In 2004, Jimmie Johnson suffered a blown motor that would ultimately cost him far more than the eight points he eventually lost that season's title to Kurt Busch by. The following year, Johnson, Busch, Rusty Wallace, and Mark Martin were all involved in crashes while eventual champion Tony Stewart finished second.
In 2008, Carl Edwards caused a wreck that cost himself, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch all dearly in their bid to dethrone Johnson that season. Martin, Kurt Busch, and Jeff Gordon all wrecked during a green-white-checkered finish, giving Johnson ample breathing room to cruise to his fourth-straight title in spite of an accident at Texas the next week.
Meanwhile, the worst finish by an eventual series champion is Johnson's 24th-place finish after a last-lap crash in 2006. In the other six races, the champion always finished ninth or better, with three top-five finishes.
The moral of the story: a driver can't win the championship at Talladega superspeedway, but he can certainly go a long way towards helping him get there or helping himself lose it.
At the same time, a driver in a bad position could renew his chances with a strong result and enough bad luck for his competitors. That might be Johnson's last hope to extend his championship reign to six seasons, as he sits 35 points out of the lead with just five races remaining in the 2011 season.
Edwards, the current point leader, and chief challenger Kevin Harvick - who won at Talladega in April 2010 - both could take a step towards their first championship with a great finish Sunday. Both drivers were among the "eight cars under a blanket" result this past April.
For the drivers who have already seen their title hopes end or who were outside the Chase to begin with, their one goal is to pick up a victory. With the wide-open type of racing at Talladega that lends itself to surprise winners, any one of the 31 drivers outside title - aside from the start-and-park teams - could conceivably score a victory.
Regardless of who wins and who doesn't and who finishes well and who doesn't, the championship picture - or at least, whether or not Johnson will extend his reign - will be much clearer when the checkered flag drops Sunday.