It will hang over all that transpires this weekend at Talladega: the death of Dan Wheldon. Every Sprint Cup driver has seen the horrific video of the wreck that took the life of the two-time Indy 500 winner last Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the IndyCar season finale. Seven days later, NASCAR is stopping at its fastest -- and most dangerous -- track.
And make no mistake: it will be treacherous on the 2.66-mile tri-oval located in the heart of Alabama. NASCAR widened the holes in the restrictor plates for this race, which should translate into an additional seven to ten horsepower in the cars -- or roughly three to four more miles per hour of speed. Also, NASCAR tweaked the engine-cooling package so that cars will have a greater chance to overheat if they run in nose-to-tail, two-car tandems for more than a half lap or so.
NASCAR is hoping that these rules changes will make it harder for the drivers to tandem draft. So (and this is just an educated guess) there should be more two- and three-wide pack racing on Sunday, which in turn will increase the chances of the Big One: the multi-car crashes for which 'Dega has long been known. Given the context of the moment and the heavy hearts in the garage -- many in NASCAR were close friends with Wheldon, who was one of the most charismatic figures in American motor sports -- I fully expect that, once the green flag waves, drivers will be as careful and as accommodating on the track as they've been in recent memory.
Who do I like to win on Sunday? Here are the five drivers I'll be watching closely.
1. Carl Edwards
Edwards knows all about the 'Dega Big One. In the fall of 2008 he got caught up in a massive wreck while the man he was battling for the championship, Jimmie Johnson, niftily avoided the tempest of spinning, smoking, out-of-control cars. Edwards finished 29th that afternoon, Johnson came in ninth. Six weeks later, Johnson narrowly beat Edwards for the championship. And so yes, Edwards, the current points leader, has essentially lost a title at Talladega before.
Could it happen again? Absolutely. For Edwards, a solid top-15 finish would constitute a good day. But I think he'll have the speed in his car to contend for the win. He led eight laps here in the spring race and finished sixth.
2. Kevin Harvick
Harvick has emerged as arguably the top restrictor-plate racer in NASCAR today. In his last three starts at Talladega he has one win, a second-place finish and a fifth. He's only trailing Edwards by five points in the standings -- which basically translates into five positions on the track -- and it would surprise no one in the garage if Harvick leaves Talladega as the new points leader. In fact, of the five remaining tracks on the schedule, this is the one where Harvick should have a decided advantage over the other title contenders.
3. Kurt Busch
As I've written in the magazine in the past, Busch is the driver that basically invented the two-car tandem drafting method. As the laps wind down on Sunday, the two-car tandem could be important, because when drivers make that final charge to the checkers, they'll surely want to get hooked up with a drafting partner. Given Busch's mastery of this type of racing, I think he'll be among those in the lead pack as the cars blaze through that final turn.
4. Jimmie Johnson
After wrecking at Charlotte Motor Speedway just days after I wrote a magazine cover piece on Johnson -- and, for the record, since I've been asked about 100 times, I do NOT believe in the SI cover curse -- Johnson must finish in the top five on Sunday to have any hope of winning a sixth straight championship. In fact, since he's eighth in the standings and trails Edwards by 35 points, he'll need all top-fives from here on out to even be a factor in the season-finale at Homestead.
5. Dale Earnhardt
Here's my bold predication for Sunday: The most infamous winless streak in NASCAR -- the streak that began the summer of 2008 -- will end when Earnhardt takes the checkered flag at Talladega, the track where he has more career wins (five) than any other on the Cup circuit.
It was Earnhardt who pushed Jimmie Johnson to victory in the spring race at 'Dega, and it is Earnhardt who is still widely regarded as an elite plate racer. The world of motor sports could use an uplifting storyline, and I think Earnhardt, the most popular driver in America, will deliver just that on Sunday.