"Clear, Daddy!" (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Okay, time for the Uh-Oh 500.
The 'Whoops, That Didn't Work' 500.
Drivers over the past few years have learned a lot about how to game the game here.
Used to be they'd pull in after one of these plate races, white-faced, shaking, yelling at NASCAR about how dangerous this kind of stuff is.
Don't hear much of that anymore, do you?
Why? Drivers almost seem to have this unofficial gentleman's agreement not to get too wild and crazy, at least not till the final miles.
But what might happen here in Sunday's Talladega 500, well, it's not all that clear at the moment.
Some, if not most, of the title contenders are expected to play it very cautiously, perhaps by just running around at the rear of the pack most of the afternoon, trying to avoid a big one.
Maybe it's this whole championship chase format that has altered strategy and tactics for this fall race. Back in the day before the chase, the title would be down to two or three men, and the rest of the field could race as wild as they wanted to.
Now the top three in the playoffs -- Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin -- are all more worried about what might go wrong in this 500 than in how they might plot to win it.
Maybe if winning this thing paid a big points bonus, the dynamic might be better.
Tony Stewart (L), with teammate Ryan Newman: Smoke may be the man to beat in Sunday's Talladega 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
If Jimmie Johnson has a weakness in this year's championship chase, then this is it -- Sunday's Talladega 500.
He crashed early at Daytona in February. He blew an engine here early in the April race. And he crashed at Daytona in July.
So Johnson comes here 0-for-three on the stock car tour's restrictor plate tracks....and like his fellow Chevy drivers he is worried about engine temperatures.
NASCAR is restricting cooling air to the engines in order to keep drivers from pairing up in two-car drafts. Kevin Harvick questions that NASCAR call, because it has drivers watching their engine temperature gauges more closely than watching their rivals out on the track through the windshield.
That is one of the more dubious rules NASCAR has imposed on these teams, because it doesn't want to see 'tandem racing' for whatever reason.
Greg Biffle: and what's the deal with Ford? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And then there's the Ford question.....
Chevy men Kasey Kahne (191.455 mph) and Ryan Newman Saturday pressed the Ford question even harder by taking the front row for Sunday's Talladega 500.
Chevy has dominated racing at Daytona and Talladega for years, particularly this huge track, with 22 wins here in the last 27 races, to Ford's two wins, Toyota's two wins and Dodge's one win.
Yes, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle had the cars to beat at Daytona...but something has changed since then. Not quite sure just what.
On top of that, Ford will not be winning this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup title, it appears. Kenseth and Biffle are both all but out of it, barring something really wild and crazy.
What's the deal with Ford anyway? A telling statistic is that General Motors teams, mostly in Chevys, have won 31 of the last 36 NASCAR Cup championships while Ford teams have won but five.
That would seem more than just a curious question....particularly if Chevy's Jimmie Johnson wins a sixth championship this fall.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Content just to make the chase? If he's got anything for 'em, he'd better show it now and here (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Now qualifying means little here, of course, because of the draft. However whatever speed a man has off the truck Friday is usually about all the speed he'll have for the rest of the weekend. Practice means little, which is why most drivers spent Friday idle.
Still, qualifying this time might be a bit more telling, especially for the title contenders:
-- Clint Bowyer, whose won here before, and who needs a big Sunday to get back into the championship race, was third fastest, and impressed even himself.
"We haven't been qualifying very good on these restrictor-plate tracks, and it caught me off guard," Bowyer says. "Going into today my whole plan for the weekend was that I figured we were going to qualify poorly and ride around in the back.
"We're in the front and I'm going to try to stay there.
"But there are a tremendous amount of guys on different strategies all across the board...so many different agendas out there. Us chase guys, I would say, got to play it relatively safe. If you don't, you get caught up in a wreck before halfway."
Clint Bowyer: He has to make something happen here. And he's starting upfront. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- Tony Stewart, who drives this track perhaps better than anyone, will start fourth. He too needs a good 500 to get back in the hunt. And he won Daytona in July.
-- Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon, 5th and 6th on the grid, are essentially out of the title chase. But Gordon has had one of the strongest cars on the tour for the past month. Biffle, on the other hand, suffered through a demoralizing day at Dover that cost him any shot at the title, and that continued the surprising, almost inexplicable, decline of Ford teams over the past several weeks.
-- Matt Kenseth, Biffle's teammate, and also out of the title hunt, is not that fast here, though he's usually smooth and slick at this track....and he did win the Daytona 500 in the spring.
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr., starting 12th, may not be able to make consistency pay off in a strong championship bid. But he is sometimes tough at places like this, and he did have a great closing surge at Daytona in February.
-- Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson all have the most to lose here, since they're the top three in the standings. They may well go conservative, even heading to the back of the pack early on, and then playing strategy. They all starting mid-pack, which may not be the place to be.
"Mainly, the issue is going to be trying to stay out of trouble," Hamlin frets.
-- Kevin Harvick, whose team appears to be reorganizing, also starts mid-pack and says engine temperatures -- which NASCAR is tightly governing, to keep drivers from two-car drafts -- are a big worry for just about everyone here.
The safest place to be during the race?
"I've been running third here and a guy went flying upside-down across my hood," Biffle says. "I was looking at him straight through the face shield. He was looking at me and I was looking at him.
"I thought being at the front was the safe spot, but I've been in wrecks in the middle and at the back."
Johnson himself is likely very gun-shy here, though he insists optimistically that his luck has to turn here.
Where to be? Sit in the back and ride? "It's really wherever I feel the safest place is," Johnson says warily. "At times that could be the front, at times the back.
"But I think the middle is the area that you don't want to be in.
"We're all just nervous coming in here. We don't really know what to expect.
"Everybody is coming in with a lot to lose if things go the wrong way... or a lot to gain if things turn out."
Brad Keselowski: the stock car racing tour points leader, and one of the wiliest drivers on the tour (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)