Two caution periods for debris were the only things that slowed the frenetic pace through the first half of Saturday night's Bank of America 500. Things got a bit more hectic in the second half, as some championship contenders gained ground while others tumbled.
Many teams started playing the tire strategy game early in the distance. Under the yellows, groups of teams went for two-tire pit stops to help move themselves forward in the running order. Track position became key for the teams who were mired back in traffic as the pace picked up when the track cooled.
Matt Kenseth took the lead with only a handful of laps remaining. The lead would come under fire when a caution flag was thrown due to Jimmie Johnson's contact with the wall. Kenseth held strong on the late restart, though, and cleared Kyle Busch for the win without a heavy challenge behind him.
This week's race at Talladega Superspeedway, the Good Sam Club 500, is considered by a lot of teams to be the wild card of the Chase races. Superspeedway racing is often a roll of the dice, and a simple mistake could cause a 43rd-place finish for any of the runners. Results are often disparate at the two restrictor-plate tracks, and ground in the Chase can be covered or lost very quickly.
To win, the drivers will have to keep their noses clean, their engines cool and their right feet firmly on the accelerator.
Matt Kenseth - Kenseth's second career victory at Charlotte boosted him to third in the Chase standings. He was one of the fastest cars throughout the night and used pit strategy and the right calls on chassis adjustments to stay up front with the rest of the challengers. No top-10s, one DNF and an average finish of 24.2 are all that Kenseth can boast from his last five runs at Talladega. He hasn't been the most competitive car, and that can create trouble at superspeedway tracks. The momentum he gained from winning last week's race might be just what Kenseth needs to score a better than average result at Talladega this week, though.
Kevin Harvick - Like most races, Harvick endured the distance and racked up another solid points finish. He was caught a lap down in the middle of the race, but used a caution period to catch back up and finish the race sixth. His efforts paid off and the No. 29 remains second in points, just five behind leader Carl Edwards. Harvick is a name fantasy owners can trust when the series visits Talladega. His average finish of 13.4 from the last five races is among the best, and it includes a win and two other top-fives with no DNFs. Harvick is very much in the hunt for this year's Chase, and he will work to capitalize on his competitors' misfortunes this week.
Brad Keselowski - Saturday night was a strenuous one for Keselowski. He struggled with his car almost from the onset and never got the wheels he needed underneath him. He ended the night 16th, after running mid-pack all 500 miles, and was the first car to finish a lap down to the leader. The impact of the lackluster performance was a drop of two positions in the championship hunt. Keselowski's famous win at Talladega helped propel his average finish to 17.2 in the last five races there, though. In addition to that trophy, he can also claim two other top-10 finishes in that span. Fantasy owners should expect Penske Racing to show some more muscle this week, and Keselowski is very likely to press that advantage.
Clint Bowyer - Saturday night was an anonymous one for Bowyer. He never ran at the front of the field, and seemed to be off the pace throughout the contest. He found himself a lap down very early and was never able to recover and move forward. He was credited with a 24th-place finish after scoring top-10s in each of the last two races. Bowyer's average finish in the last five Talladega races is 12.2, which isn't bad. He won one of those races, and finished every one of them as well. That is no simple task at Talladega. Fantasy players should already recognize Richard Childress Racing as a top team at this track, but Bowyer could be the one leading the charge.
Greg Biffle - A missed lug nut, near the halfway point of Saturday night's race and the resulting penalty out Biffle behind the eight ball with a lot of miles still to go in the Bank of America 500. Things only got worse when he had contact with Tony Stewart, eventually blowing a tire and putting him in the wall. It didn't end all badly, though, as he finished as the last car on the lead lap in 16th position. Biffle isn't the name that everyone goes to when talking about restrictor-plate races, yet his average Talladega finish in the last five races is 10.8 and includes a top-five and two other top-10s. Fantasy owners can consider Biffle as a solid option this week.
Juan Pablo Montoya - In a relatively anonymous performance Saturday, Montoya tallied a 14th-place finish. He did not have the car to challenge at the front, and that isn't a different story than what we've come to expect from this team in 2011. Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing has ground to cover if it wants to make a larger impression in 2012. One chance to end 2011 with some momentum could come as early as this week. Of the types of tracks on which Montoya can safely be put into a fantasy roster, superspeedways like Talladega don't seem the most obvious. His finishes at the track, however, have been mighty. His average result from the last five events is 15.0 and includes two top-fives and no DNFs. Montoya has firmly grasped the nuances of Talladega. Expect him to shine.
Denny Hamlin - Ninth-place in the Bank of America 500 on Saturday night didn't lift Hamlin from the basement of the Chase. He remains 12th in points and has an 86-point deficit to erase if he wants to claim his first title. The top-10 he earned last weekend was his first in five races, and could set off a run of top results, but he'll have to survive Talladega first. Hamlin has not produced a great record at the track recently, His average finish of 19.2 from the last five starts, coupled with a top-five and a top-10 demonstrate inconsistency. There are a handful of drivers fantasy owners can count on always running at the front at a track like Talladega, but Hamlin, while fast, is not one of them.
Kyle Busch - Second place in Charlotte hauled Busch forward in the Chase standings by four positions. He now stands fourth in the ranking and will be keen to consolidate that position and continue moving forward. To do so, he'll have to overcome some of his recent missed steps at Talladega. An accident like the one he had in April's visit to the superspeedway will even more costly this week. Busch has not been so lucky at Talladega recently. His average finish at the track is a lowly 21.8 in the last five races. He can only claim one top-10 finish in that time, and failed to finish on the lead lap twice. Busch is not the favorite this week.
Jimmie Johnson - Johnson lost considerable ground in Charlotte when he attempted to make a late race pass on Ryan Newman and lost the car. He nosed the chassis into the wall, ending his night. NASCAR classified him as the 34th-place finisher, and that buried him deep in the standings in eighth position. The trophy engraving team might have been ready to carve Johnson's name a fifth time, but that changed last weekend. At Talladega, Johnson's recent record is not bad with a win and two other top-10s in the last five tries. His average finish is 15.0, but being this deep in the points might make him more likely to gamble than usual, making him a slightly risky play.
Ryan Newman - Newman's name was called fairly often Saturday night. He scored a top-10, which was his first since Chicago, and second in the Chase. He overtook Jeff Gordon in the Chase standings due to Gordon's recent struggles, but isn't climbing the ladder as quickly as he would need to take the trophy. Results in 2011, while good enough to book a spot in the Chase haven't been the model of the best, and that should give fantasy owners pause. One top-five finish is Newman's claim to fame in the last five Talladega races, too. His average finish in that period is 24.4, and his two DNFs severely hamper his fantasy value this week.
Tony Stewart - After taking damage from contact with Greg Biffle, Stewart took a late-race pit stop and rolled home with third top-10 finish of the Chase. He pulled himself forward by two spots in the standings and is hoping some more bad luck befalls the competitors ahead of him. Stewart will need to carry his momentum forward this week if he intends to make up more ground, but that has proven difficult for him at Talladega. Despite being one of the more reputable restrictor-plate racers in the series, Stewart has had a horrible run at things in his last five Talladega tries. With no top-fives or top-10s in his last five appearances at Talladega Superspeedway, Stewart is not the most attractive selection this week.
Follow @cjradune on Twitter.