TALLADEGA, Ala. - -It was with this racetrack in mind that the No. 48 team built its lead throughout NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Everybody knows anything can happen at Talladega. A team's championship chances can end here, lost in the wreckage of a massive accident, as they did for Carl Edwards last season.
Four races remain in the Chase. And this weekend, the Sprint Cup Series will be run at Talladega Superspeedway, a track known for its big unpredictable wrecks, where driver ability and team quality means less than in most places. This year, Talladega's fall race, the AMP Energy 500, is later than it has been in the past, and so its impact could be harsher.
That's why Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and their three-time defending championship team built the biggest lead they've ever had at this point in the Chase. All so this race will hurt less, if it has to hurt at all.
"They've played it just the way they wanted to play it," said Gordon, Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, who is third in points standings. "They wanted to get themselves in position to have a big enough lead to where this race doesn't necessarily determine the outcome. And they know they've got three solid races left after this."
A driver can't make up more than 161 points in one race. Should Johnson finish last today and Martin finish first while also leading the most laps, Martin would lead Johnson by 43 points.
If Martin or Gordon gets caught up in a wreck, his title hopes would end. Last season's Talladega wreck took out championship contender Carl Edwards late in the race. Edwards had a hand in starting that crash and finished 29th. Eventual champion Johnson weaved his way through the debris and emerged cleanly.
Earlier this season, Edwards had trouble at Talladega. A last-lap crash sent his car airborne and into the track fence, costing him a win or a second-place finish. Edwards finished 24th. It wasn't the first big wreck of the day, though. Martin wrecked on Lap 5.
With a dominant force like the No. 48 team leading the points standings, the unpredictable nature of this track gives Martin and Gordon some hope they might be able to make up ground.
"This is the biggest opportunity for all of us," Martin said. "And I would assume he would go into this race uptight like I always have."
That's why even though he has a comfortable margin, Johnson isn't relaxing. As the end of the season nears and the possibility of a historic championship approaches - no driver has ever won four straight championships - sleep gets harder to come by.
"When I look at the points ... it does make me feel better about things, but there still is just as much to lose," Johnson said.
Inclement weather led NASCAR to cancel Saturday's qualifying session and set the field for today's race on points, which put Johnson and Martin side by side on the front row.