Friday April 23rd, 2010

It is one of the oldest saws in the sport: You can't predict Talladega.

The biggest track on the Sprint Cup schedule, the 2.66-mile tri-oval delivers more surprise winners than any other stop on the circuit. Jamie McMurray, who was sitting on a 86-race winless streak last spring, won at 'Dega last April and Brad Keselowski, who had zero career victories last fall, took the checkered flag last October.

If I were a crew chief, here's what I would tell my driver right before he hopped into his car for the start of Sunday's Aaron's 499 at 'Dega:

"As soon as the green flag waves, see if you can get to the front. Let's test how much power we have under the hood. Let's test our handling. Let it all hang out for a few laps. Once we know what we have, drop to the back of the pack. Just try to cruise around and stay out of harm's way.

"When the Big One erupts -- and it will probably happen midway through the race when some knucklehead gets overly aggressive -- listen to your spotter and try to navigate through the slew of spinning cars. Once you survive that, keep being conservative. Take care of your equipment. Another Big One might happen, but just stay back far enough and you'll be able to drive through it.

"When there's ten laps to go, we're going start to get serious. But don't get anxious. We'll have time. Just try to get to into the lead pack. Let the other boys know you're there. Go ahead and do some bump drafting, even through the corners, if you think that will slingshot you into that lead pack.

"Then with two to go, mash that gas, but don't make any mega-aggressive moves. Not yet. But once the white flag waves, all bets are off. We've seen guys go from 15th to first on the final lap before, so you can make up a lot of ground. This is what happens at restrictor-plate tracks. Now you get aggressive. Now you pour coal on the fire and see what kind of racecar we've got. Be bold. Be brave. Bump guys out of the way if you have to. Cut them off. Block them. Do whatever it takes, just get me a victory."

That would be my strategy, and it's one that I expect several drivers will adopt once the engines fire. Why hang back early? Because the likelihood of a big wreck up front seems as high as ever.

When NASCAR announced that it would largely let drivers police themselves this year, the sport's governing body also said that it would no longer restrict bump drafting through the corners at Daytona and Talladega. This wasn't a big issue in the season-opening race at Daytona, but I think it will lead to some wrecks on Sunday because there are plenty of desperate drivers in the sport right now who are willing to do desperate things. This wasn't the case at Daytona, where everyone was tied in the points and everyone believed they were legitimate championship contenders.

There are three clear favorites to take the checkers on Sunday -- Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. I'm picking Gordon. Even though he doesn't have any wins to show for it, Gordon has been the most dominant driver in the sport over the last month. In his last three starts he finished third at Martinsville (he led 92 laps there), second at Phoenix, and clearly had the fastest car at Texas on Monday, but got caught up in a late wreck and came in 31st.

Gordon also is one of two best plate racers in the sport (the other is Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and he has six career wins at 'Dega, which is more than any other active driver. The fans in the grandstands surely won't like it -- the last time Gordon won here in the heart of Earnhardt country his No. 24 Chevy was showered with beer cans -- but late on Sunday afternoon it says here he'll be in Victory Lane.

One more prediction: He'll follow the above strategy to a tee.

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