Where dreams crash

Just for fun, try a Google search using the terms "Talladega" and "Big One."

You get about 195,000 hits. Talladega, site of the next NASCAR pit stop Sunday, is notorious for its parade of bumper cars flying through the air. The unpredictability factor is part of the suspense. A driver could be having a great day, and next thing he knows, he is airborne, with any chance of winning going up in the air as well.

With only six points separating Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin in the Chase standings, the possibility of a Big One completely wrecking either guy's shot at a championship looms heavily.

"It's going to be one helluva race," Johnson said." I can promise you that."

Cars can get bunched up quickly in the frenzy of restrictor-plate racing. Try that on the Interstate going about 200 mph.

The madness of Talladega is thoroughly documented. Just last year, Brad Keselowski was behind Carl Edwards about 100 yards from the finish line when Edwards tried to block Keselowski's final push to nudge past him.

The cars collided, sending Edwards' Ford airborne, flipping wildly in the air. Edwards' car bounced off the hood of Ryan Newman's car and then rolled — roof up — into a catch fence along the front grandstand.

Edwards then climbed out of the car and jogged to the finish line

"When you hear 'three wide,' 'four wide' and 'five wide' for the first time (on the radio) and you can't see that far in front of you and you're trying to imagine where the guys are next to you," Johnson said, "there are a couple of moments that are really, really tense. It's kind of trial and error at that point. I've had plenty of errors early in my Cup career at Talladega."

Johnson can't afford any now. Not with four races remaining and Hamlin bringing heat.

"All we can do is run that race the way we always do," Hamlin said. "We always run up front at that racetrack. We've really figured out, I feel like, a good setup for that place, and I feel like I've gotten better at superspeedway racing."

At the very least, there is finally drama in a Chase format that Johnson has obliterated over the last four seasons. Could his run for a five-peat be in jeopardy?

"I'm really trying to not be emotionally attached to (the points lead) until we get out of Talladega," Johnson said. "So much can happen at Talladega. (There are) three races left after that. If we're close, we'll race like hell."

gdiaz2@tribune.com

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