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Talladega preview: Will The Big One slow the Chase leaders?

Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Junior Nation will be out in force for Dale Earnhardt, who should be a factor on a track he's owned.

This will be a Talladega race unlike any other in the track's storied history, which dates back to 1969. Why? Because every driver in the Chase -- with two notable exceptions -- is actually looking forward to racing on NASCAR's biggest (2.66-miles) and fastest (top speeds have exceeded 220 mph) tri-oval.

Since its creation, Talladega has been famous for one thing: The Big One. This is the term for the multi-car wrecks that 'Dega usually produces. Because it is a restrictor-plate track -- metal plates are put in the carburetors to reduce airflow to the engine, thus limiting horsepower and speed -- the cars travel around the high-banked asphalt in tight packs.

A driver's slightest miscue -- a wobble here, a wiggle there -- can trigger a chain-reaction wreck that takes out half the field in a matter of heartbeats. This is why all Chase drivers refer to 'Dega as "the wildcard." More than at any other track in the playoffs, their fates will be determined to a greater degree by the cars in front of them rather than what they are doing in the cockpits of his own machines.

Cup racers normally dread these waiting-to-happen crashes at 'Dega, but the vast majority aren't worried this year. Why? Because the only way for Chase drivers not named Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson to re-emerge as title contenders is to have Kenseth and Johnson get caught up the Talladega Big One.

As it stands, Kenseth holds a four-point lead over Johnson. The third place driver is Kevin Harvick, who trails Kenseth by 29 points, which is roughly the equivalent of 29 positions on the track. So Kenseth and Johnson have essentially pulled away from the Chase pack like motorized versions of Secretariat and Seattle Slew, leaving the rest of the field far behind. The only way this duo will be run down, put simply, is if they crash.

Will that happen? I don't think so. Kenseth and Johnson -- two seasoned drivers who both are past champions -- are perhaps the two most talented plate racers in the Cup series. My pick to win on Sunday is Johnson. My pick to finish second is Kenseth.

That duo atop the points standings is among my five drivers to watch at 'Dega when the green flag drops on Sunday afternoon in Alabama:

1. Matt Kenseth

The first story I ever wrote on the NASCAR beat for SI, back in 2000, was a rookie diary on Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kenseth told me repeatedly how much he loathed restrictor plate tracks. And yet, 13 years ago, Kenseth was solid at Daytona and Talladega: his average finish that season in the four plate races was 14.5.

He's improved since then. He won the fall race at Talladega last year and he's finished in the top 10 there in each of his last three starts. He'll be formidable on Sunday.

2. Jimmie Johnson

No driver has been more dominant this year on plate tracks than Johnson. He won both Daytona races and finished sixth at Talladega in the spring. It certainly appears that he has a mechanical advantage over the rest of the field at these venues. And when he has that edge, the five-time champ wins nine out of 10 times.

3. Kevin Harvick

In his final season at Richard Childress Racing before he moves to Stewart-Haas next year, Harvick has been the surprise driver of the Chase. He won at Kansas two weeks ago and finished sixth last Saturday night at Charlotte. At the very least, he's now in a position to climb into the ring with Kenseth and Johnson should the championship leaders falter on Sunday.

Throughout his career, Harvick has been boom or bust at Talladega. He won the 2010 spring race there and finished second that fall. But in his last four starts, he hasn't crossed the finish line in the top 10. No one is hoping more than Harvick that the Big One erupts directly in front of Kenseth and Johnson on Sunday.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Talladega is the tobacco spittin', beer-swilling heart of Junior Nation. NASCAR's most popular driver used to own this track, which is one reason why roughly 80 percent of the fans on Sunday will be wearing Earnhardt Jr. T-shirts. Between 2001 and '04, he won an astounding five times in seven starts at 'Dega.

But recently Talladega's favorite son has struggled on the tri-oval. His average finish in his last two starts has been 18.5, but expect him to be very, very fast on Sunday. He'll draft with Johnson and, I think, ultimately push his teammate at Hendrick Motorsports to Victory Lane.

5. Danica Patrick

If Patrick is going to win a race this season -- highly unlikely, to be sure -- it will happen on Sunday. She relishes big, fast tracks like Daytona and Talladega. She led laps earlier this year in the Daytona 500 and during practice before the spring race at 'Dega she was consistently near the top of the speed chart.

I think she'll be in the lead pack as the cars roar out of Turn 4 and head to the checkered flag at nearly 200 mph on Sunday. But it says here no one will catch the No. 48 Chevy of Mr. Five Time.

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