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Denny Hamlin has some hot iron for Sunday's Talladega 500. And is Jimmie Johnson getting a bit nervous?

  Two-car drafts rule at Talladega again, just as here in April: Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (upper left)....Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch (upper right)...Brian Vickers (in the car Kasey Kahne is now driving) and Kyle Busch (lower center) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



   The Russian Roulette 500 attitude, Kurt Busch terms it: "We call it the toughest race in the chase, because you don't know what is going to happen... and if the 'big one' happens, you don't know how to avoid it."
    That's the backdrop to Friday's opening rounds of practice for Sunday's Talladega Amp 500, in which Denny Hamlin set a 201-plus mph pace in closing up in the draft.
    Too fast? Certainly a breath-taking closing rate.

   But Hamlin says here that faster is safer: "The chances of you wrecking is a lot more with a slower speed than it is with a higher speed.
    "The higher the speed, the more the cars are unstable,  and it will obviously cause the cars to spread out. I don't know if that's what the fans want to see; they want kind of both -- They like to see that number 200-and-something, but then again they like to see us all in a pack.
   "We've got a good balance right now of the two. 
    "And I feel these cars are safe enough to where we could race in that range."
    Qualifying is set for 11:15 a.m. Saturday; this is an 'impound' race, meaning no practice after qualifying, to keep teams from using too much trick qualifying stuff and to force teams to practice on race setup.

  Kasey Kahne: What can he do here in his new ride? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Jeff Burton was in rare form, and full of himself Friday, in talking with the media and in practice out on the track.
   Jimmie Johnson was a bit tense.
   Hamlin was cool and confident....and one of the fastest men in the final round of practice.
   And Kevin Harvick was basking in the comfort of the sense that he may be the race favorite here, considering his victory in April.

   Harvick says he's gotten past the hurdles that worried him, and now he's to the point in the 10-race chase where he feels he can take command.
   “We have gone through so many what we thought were speed bumps in this chase, the first one being Dover, the second one being Charlotte, and the third one being Martinsville," Harvick says. "We feel really comfortable about the next four weeks....
    "But obviously at this place anything can happen -- whether you are leading the race or running last you can wind up in somebody else's mess. But I enjoy restrictor-plate racing.
    "It's obviously something you have to think about a lot; there is a lot of strategy involved in it, and you have to have fast cars.  We have been able to put all those things on the race track this year, and if this was the last race of the year, I would be pretty excited about it."
    Johnson, the Sprint Cup tour points leader, by just six over Hamlin and 62 over Harvick, isn't exactly worried, now that the title chase has pretty much boiled down to a three-man race.....unless Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards can catch a lightning strike.
   "The past three years...this has been a very good track for us in the points," Johnson says.
   But he concedes a bit of concern, considering how the finishes here have gone lately: "Mark Martin was within a mile of the finish line when he got taken out last year, running in the top-10, and ended up sliding across the finish line on his roof."
   Looking at driver stats here, Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and David Ragan should go 1-2-3 Sunday.
   And Johnson admits "I know our record doesn't show us a favorite, but a lot of it has been because of the strategy we've run. We just haven't been at the front; we've been at the back, trying to be smart."

    In fact, conservative driving like that is one reason perhaps to consider a rules tweak – like giving a point for every lap led. How would that change the dynamic of racing here?
    "It would make it better," Burton said. "So if you led 100 laps, you get 100 points? That would make a difference, wouldn't it.
    "You couldn't ride around in the back. You would have to have to go to the front.
    "I'm not supporting this idea, but I will say it would make this race much more exciting. It would make a very interesting race."

   From here the stock car tour concludes the season with events at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.
   Johnson says Harvick "is going to be great at Phoenix. And their 1-1/2-mile program has been awesome, and there are two left.
    "You look at Denny, and he has won at Texas and at Homestead...and is no slouch on the flat miles (like Phoenix). So he's going to be competitive there too.
    "All three drivers in contention right now have four really good tracks, especially the final three."
    However there will be 40 other men in Sunday's field....each with his own agenda.
    One big thing to watch here, and over the final weeks, is how teammates work with each other. Not just teammates but manufacturers' teammates. Toyota men especially are expected to help Hamlin all they can.
    It doesn't always work out quite right of course. Ask Burton and Harvick, who were at each other's throat for a few tense moments at Martinsville.
    And then recall that Burton could have won here last fall and that Harvick did win here in the spring.
   "We are both very competitive people," Burton said of the war of wits at Martinsville. "The best way I can describe it is RCR is like a family...and sometimes family argue amongst themselves. You carry on probably more with your family than with people you don't even know.
    "That is probably what happened with us last week.
    "We sat down and had a great meeting Tuesday, and talked about it. And we'll be better teammates for it.
    "Both of us could have handled that situation better; both of us had something to learn from it.
    "But it is completely over.
     "And I think we will be stronger for it.
     "It is hard, man -- Being teammates is hard. You always expect more out of your teammate.
     "You are trying to be a good teammate, but you are also trying to beat your teammate...and it's a very, very difficult.
    "I'm surprised we don't have more incidents, to be quite honest."
    And Talladega, remember, is a place where a driver needs all the friends he can muster in the draft.
   "If you have a situation with a teammate, the last place you want to go is Talladega the week after...because teammates always get their feelings hurt here.
    "If a teammate can help me, I want him to help me. But I don't want him to help me if it is going to hurt him. That is not fair to them."
    The 'big one' is always on every driver's mind. It's just part of the game at this place.
   Sometimes the pack simply plays it cool virtually the entire race, until letting loose in the final miles.
   But then sometimes there are action-packed 500s here like back in the spring.
   Which one will this be?
     "Here and Bristol are the only tracks we go to where a wreck happens and drivers get out and say 'That is just Bristol,' or 'that is just plate-racing,'" Burton says.
    "We tend to blame to it on the racing, rather than on ourselves.
    "But it is real important to review every incident you are involved in at Talladega -- to go back and look at it really, really, really closely and make sure you couldn't have done something different.
    "It is, without a doubt, the biggest opportunity to have something happen to you where you didn't do anything wrong.
     "But you have got to believe that you are going to be able to be in control. You have to believe you are going to have an impact on your result and what happens."
    Nevertheless, many of the drivers here have had bad flipping crashes at this place, and there are a lot of wrecks in the final laps.
    "There is a reason we wreck at the end of the race," Burton says. "It's because for 140 laps (of the 188), when somebody is trying to fill a hole, you let them do it. The cost to you isn't great, so you allow it.
    "When it starts to get to the end of the race, that spot is coveted, and you want it...and so you end up doing things you wouldn't normally do.
    "That is nature of the beast.
    "If you lift when you really want to lift, a lot of times it really costs you.
    "Restrictor plate racing puts you in positions like in no other kind of racing."

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