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Montoya and Bowyer: at the head of the pack for Sunday's green, in the 'Russian Roulette 500' playoff wild card

   Montoya! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



   On a day heavy with the loss of another one of this sport's icons, in a season of loss, NASCAR drivers sucked it up Saturday and went out at it in qualifying for Sunday's Talladega Amp 500, which could be a decisive event in this year's championship playoffs.
   Jamie McMurray, who won this race last fall and who followed with a victory in the Daytona 500, should be one of the favorites; teammate Juan Pablo Montoya won the pole (184.640 mph), just a tick quicker than Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, surprising Joe Nemechek, Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

   Burton, Bowyer and Busch are the only playoff drivers in that bunch, but they're all but out of the title hunt, with four races to go.
   The Sprint Cup title chase appears to be boiling down to three men, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin chasing Jimmie Johnson. Harvick will be in the seventh row for the 12 noon CT (1 p.m. ET) start, just ahead of Hamlin and Johnson.
   Those three will just be hoping to stay out of trouble. And that may not be easy.

   A beautiful weekend at Talladega (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   For Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, this race may be their last desperate stand. They're far behind Johnson...but this track can be a really wild card event.
   "For me, this race is an opportunity for us to cut into our points deficit," Edwards, 213 down, says. "Most of you know my love-hate relationship with this place -- and right now I’m really looking forward to it, just because it could shake things up and it could work out in our favor."
    Kyle Busch too: "You look at what can happen here, and obviously you say that you can make up a lot of ground. 
   "You go to Texas, and you could make up ground at Texas -- look at what happened to Jimmie last year, getting caught up with Sam Hornish – but it's less realistic. 
    "Same thing with Phoenix. Jimmie's won there four out of the last five times, or five out of the last six races, at Phoenix.
    "And then at Homestead Denny's been really good. 
    "So this is the last shot that we feel like we can make a big gain in points.  If we do, so be it. And if we don't, oh, well...."


    Kevin Harvick: down 62 points to Jimmie Johnson with four races to go (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Stress? Drivers to a man fret about the 2-1/2 hours of mental stress in such tight traffic at 200-mph. And flips are not uncommon. In fact too many of these drivers have been upside here, like Ryan Newman last fall, and Edwards that April.
    Kyle Busch says "when you're done here, you are mentally exhausted.  You literally are. 
    "You get to the airplane, and if you don't have a headache, you're lucky. 
    "And if you can go to sleep and rest your brain for a few hours, then it's not a bad thing."
    Sometimes drivers here react to that stress by deliberately trying to not to race too hard too early....because they're almost certain there will be some bad wrecks eventually.
   Then again sometimes drivers here, like in April, just go wild and crazy.
   Which way this 500 may go is anybody's guess.


    Ford's Carl Edwards: Last stand (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    The last few races here have been highlighted by two-car breakaway packs.
    Not three cars or more, just two.
    And that may seem a little odd.
    Edwards explains: "The deal is if you can push someone's bumper, your car gets in a little void of low pressure behind their car, and you can just lay into it. 
    "But I think it's too difficult to do that with three cars, because the guy in the middle gets choked up and wrecked.
    "It's hard enough to do with two. 
    "I think it'll be two cars breaking away.  If you look at the last laps of the last couple of these races, it's been two cars breaking away: two cars over here,
two cars over there, separating themselves. 
    "If there are a couple groups of those two-car things going on that last lap, it could be a pretty amazing race."

    Closing rates are typically an issue here, and could be again, with two cars back deep in the field able to make fast, long charges toward the front, assuming no blocking. The speed in the draft here was well over 200 mph. How drivers play with that closing rate could be critical, since blocking is always an issue.

    Team owner Jack Roush: Can his men make something happen? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    "Because of this two-car breakaway thing, and how well the cars match up bumper-to-bumper, it leaves a lot of options out there," Edwards says.
   "When Brad (Keselowski) and I had our race (a year ago April here), I was in line, sixth or eighth, and he just pulled up behind me and started pushing. And we pulled out and passed everyone. 
    "In two laps we were however many yards ahead of the field, and we were just screaming. 
    "We hadn't worked together all day; I'd never drafted with him before. But that went really well.
     "That could happen with anyone -- you could have guys running under the white flag in eighth or ninth position, and if they get matched up the right way and pull out and go....
    "I don't think it matters what manufacturer the car is, or whether they're teammates or not. It's just going to come down to who gets teamed up together and if they can keep their cars together and not wreck one another. They're going to be really fast."

   NASCAR's Brian France has said he's considering some tweaks to the championship playoffs for 2011. How about giving chase drivers a point for each lap led? Couldn't hide in the back and play it safe, if that were the rule.
    "Are you trying to make it more dramatic?" Edwards replied with a grin. "I guess that would be pretty interesting. 
    "I'd have to think that through.
    "You can already wreck up there in the front....and I think if you were paying points for leading, there would probably be a series of wrecks with guys leading, and you still might be better off to sit in the back and wait it out.
    "It just comes down to how much risk guys are taking. It might even be more riskier to run up front...but that's a good question."

    On the technical side here Edwards and his teammates have been fighting a mysterious vibration issue.
    "It seems like something we're all fighting," Edwards says.
    "They always give me a hard time in the meetings because I'm always screaming about how my car is vibrating...and it makes you just want to give up.  You’re like that guy on TV that swears he saw a UFO, and everybody is like 'Yeah, okay,' because they can't duplicate it in the shop and they can't duplicate it on the chassis dyno.
    "So it's one of those things you chase around. 
     "In the car it feels like it robs horsepower and robs speed. So it's important to me."

                                   The starting grid for Sunday's Talladega Amp 500



    Jamie McMurray: winner here last fall, and the Daytona 500 winner too (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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