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Denny Hamlin's hot at Dega too, but will that be good enough for the pole, or just on Sunday?

   Denny Hamlin's been hot all season, and driving well enough to battle for the championship...if not for that one little mistake at California (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Bump-drafting. Intuitively it looks pretty stupid. One car ramming another from the rear at 190 to 195 mph. Deliberately. To pick up speed.
   But it's been that way at Talladega the past several years, and NASCAR seems unable to police it.
   And now, with this new car-of-tomorrow, there's more bump-drafting than ever, and even a new twist: "You can get a two-car draft (and break away from the pack), and that's something that's new with this new car; we've never really seen that before," Jeff Gordon says.
    "Now we can push one another through the corners (bump-drafting) --- and that's what I don't understand…I thought there were 'no-bump zones.'
    "But the reason why that's working (two-car breakaways), because NASCAR is allowing the cars to push one another through the corners.
    "Until they crack down on that, I think you're going to see it come down (at the end of the race0 to two guys locking up together and pushing one another…and then trying to figure out how to decide it among themselves."
    What that's meant lately here is a late-race crash, when the trailing car  makes a move on the leader, and the leader then moves to block.
    Think Carl Edwards flipping, after trying to block a pass by Brad Keselowski.
    "It doesn't have to mean that there's going to be a crash, it doesn't have to be that way," Gordon insists. "The leader has to make a decision -- whether he's just going to finish second or whether he can figure out a way to not allow that car to even get inside or outside of him."
   Uh, yeah. Let's see how that plays out this time in the final miles of Sunday's Talladega 500.
   Qualifying Saturday morning sets the pole, though rain is forecast, which would essentially set the starting grid by the current point standings.
   Tony Stewart says Denny Hamlin has the fastest car here in race trim; drivers drafted Friday, and drafted darned hard. Michael Waltrip got warned twice by NASCAR for bump-drafting Jimmie Johnson too hard, and when NASCAR called Waltrip out a third time it parked him for a while to cool off.
   However having the fastest car in drafting form doesn't necessarily translate to the fastest car in qualifying; in fact it might be the opposite.
   NASCAR is using slightly smaller restrictor plates for this race after Edwards' crash. But drivers say that will only bunch the field a little tighter and probably make things a bit more dangerous. Still, going with slightly smaller plates means slightly slower speeds, which might make the cars less likely to get airborne.
   However Ryan Newman points out that NASCAR still hasn't fully addressed the aerodynamic situation, and he says he wants to see more.
   Track officials have raised the fencing dramatically, from 14 to 22 feet, and curved the top, and strengthen the fencing too. And NASCAR executives have been quick to point out that that old fencing did its job, of preventing a car from getting into the grandstands. However some spectators were injured by flying parts.
   With last-lap crashes here, Gordon says he's rethinking how to play the final miles: "Definitely. If I was in that lead position it's going to make me change how I would race.
    "As the leader, you've got to do everything you can to get to the checkered flag first…but you've got to finish.
     "You can't put yourself in a position where you're giving all the control to the guy right behind you -- and try to take it away from him hundreds of feet away from the start/finish line.
    "You've got to figure out how to take that control away from him before you ever get to the start/finish line….or you've got to give it up and say 'Okay, today's my day to finish second and not to win."

   Jeff Gordon (flanked by Ryan Newman (L) and Tony Stewart (R)) says late-race strategy will have to be different, after the last few races here ended in crashes (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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