This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.
Brad Keselowski made all the right moves at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, surviving wrecks, and navigating multiple green-white-checkered restarts to finish off his "must-win" effort. Keselowski and his Penske Racing team were down in the championship standings, and effectively had to score Sunday's victory to advance to the Eliminator round of the Chase and keep his championship hopes alive. He did just that.
The weekend got started with NASCAR's new qualifying format, shortening the time of each three-round knockout session. The change caught a number of teams out in the very first go, with a number of drivers failing to make it across the start line to begin their timed lap before the time limit ended. The change also saw most drivers waiting on pit road to only go out on track for the final seconds of each round. The format was widely criticized, and caused Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to miss the race altogether.
With the drama of qualifying in the past the opening segment of Sunday's race was a relatively calm affair. Much of the race's opening half was run under green-flag conditions, including the first round of pit stops. As the miles clicked away the pressure ratcheted upward, though. Two crashes claimed multiple Chase contenders, the first to suffer major trouble being Kyle Busch. The final pressure-packed restarts saw both Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson fighting at the front to keep their championship hopes afloat, but having a teammate nearby helped Keselowski outlast the competition.
Brad Keselowski - One driver that put all of his cards on the table Sunday was Keselowski. The Penske Racing driver who was so strong all season did all he could to salvage his championship effort on Sunday. With less than 10 laps remaining he forced his way to the front of the field to directly contend with Johnson, both of them fighting for championship survival. Keselowski had the benefit of teammate Joey Logano latched to his bumper, and that made all the difference as he survived two green-white-checkered restarts to win and advance to the Eliminator round of the Chase. In nine visits to Martinsville Keselowski has yet to win with have five top-10 finishes to his name, but he may still remain a marked man after his scuffles in Charlotte.
Ryan Newman - Newman was a contender again last weekend at Talladega. His fifth-place finish was his fourth consecutive top-10 finish, a nice run that helped him advance in the Chase while other contenders were felled by problems. Newman has been the picture of consistency this season, and this new Chase format could present him with an opportunity to bag a championship as a result. Newman starts fresh for the Eliminator round next week at Martinsville, but the resetting of points has yet to affect him. He has 11 top-10 finishes at the short track from 25 starts, including a somewhat unlikely win in 2012. He is racing extremely well right now, and fantasy rosters could benefit from that.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick made a mistake entering pit road for his final stop in Sunday's GEICO 500. His car spun as he attempted to slow in a group of cars entering, losing a ton of time before finally getting to his stall. Damage from the spin was limited by a caution that came just as Harvick was returning to the track, though. The team continued digging, putting Harvick back in position to contend. He scored the ninth position when the race ended to bag his third top-10 finish in the last five races and continue building momentum for the Eliminator round. Harvick is a former winner at Martinsville and is in the eliminator round, still looking like a strong championship contender.
Clint Bowyer - Bowyer put his potential to work last weekend at Talladega, putting a strong car and past performances to good use to claim the third-place finishing position. It was Bowyer's fifth top-5 result of the season and comes just one week after finishing last in Charlotte. What made Bowyer's afternoon so impressive was the move he put on David Ragan, knocking the No. 34 car hard to the middle of the track and back in the draft to enable Bowyer to continue climbing forward. The move paid off, didn't damage Bowyer's car, and enabled him to battle among the leaders in the final restarts of the day. Bowyer also rarely finishes outside of the top 10 at Martinsville so last week's finish could bring a tailwind.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Earnhardt battled hard with teammate Johnson and other contenders at the front of the field on Sunday. The Daytona 500 winner demonstrated his restrictor-plate skills yet again with another consistent Talladega run, proving once again that he is always going to be a favorite at the schedule's two superspeedway races. He wasn't able to remain at the front, though, getting turned to start a crash that ended his championship run after he fell back in the pack as the race drew to a close. Earnhardt doesn't have the same pedigree at Martinsville as he does at Daytona and Talladega having never won at the track, but he has bagged 16 top-10 finishes from his 29 career starts there.
Jamie McMurray - After a long green stretch to start Sunday's race McMurray was the first to lose control and damage his car. Being the first with damage at a restrictor-plate track generally means a long afternoon, and McMurray wasn't immune. A flat tire caused the No. 1 car to lose control exiting a turn, and the spin and contact that came after couldn't be helped. The rest of the afternoon was a frustrating battle deep in the field, from which the No. 1 was never able to move forward from. He finished 35th due to the trouble, and has now finished worse than 20th in three of his last five races. McMurray has never won at Martinsville, and finished 42nd after starting ninth there earlier this season.
Kyle Busch - The seemingly safe strategy of hanging toward the back of the field didn't pan out for Busch on Sunday. Austin Dillon tagged him when a melee broke out in front of them, and the damage sent Busch straight to the garage. He was the first of the Chase contenders to have a major problem in the race, which ultimately proved to be his downfall. The crew worked hard to make repairs, but he returned to the track too late to gain much ground back, ending his championship hopes by failing to finish high enough to advance to the next round of the Chase. Busch finished 14th at Martinsville earlier this season after starting from pole, and wins are what he'll be looking for now.
Tony Stewart - Stewart continues to be a questionable fantasy option as the 2014 season draws to a close. The typically good restrictor-plate racer was a mid-pack car for most of the afternoon in Talladega, and was caught in the wreck that took out Kyle Busch and a number of other competitors. Stewart was able to land a top-5 two weeks ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but hasn't yet demonstrated the consistent performances we typically expect from the former champion. Sunday's race was another disappointment for this team, and taking some top-10 finishes from the remaining races on the schedule would be a strong tonic for the winter, and Martinsville could give him that chance. He has 15 top-10 finishes and three wins from 30 starts.
Jimmie Johnson - Johnson finally looked like the championship winner of old on Sunday. The six-time champion led the most laps in Sunday's race, picking up every point he could to help his cause in advancing to the next round of the Chase. Unfortunately, that effort wasn't enough for him to advance in the Chase. Despite being near the front of the field in the closing stages, Johnson had no drafting partners that would have helped advance his cause. By the time the field crossed the finish line he was down the order and outside of the top 20 for a very disappointing finish. He has eight Martinsville wins from 25 starts at the track, which could help him salvage another win before the season ends.
Danica Patrick - After finishing inside the top 30 just once in her three-race Talladega career, Patrick forced her way to the front of the field with just 20 laps remaining in Sunday's GEICO 500. She led six laps in her last visit to Talladega, but appeared much stronger on Sunday. She continues to improve in her NASCAR career, and is starting to become a driver to pay attention to on the superspeedway tracks of Daytona and Talladega. When all was said and done she finished 19th in Sunday's outing, recording her best ever Talladega finish from a strong effort for the day. She has yet to claim a top-10 finish at Martinsville, and finished 32nd at the track earlier this season, though.