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Talladega: 100 lead changes? It's a $100,000 bonus. But with the championship on the line in this wild card....

  Not a good Friday for Kyle Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, all locked in tight battle for the Sprint Cup tour lead, have little to gain and a lot to lose here. And they may be prepared to drive like that.
   Especially Edwards, who has had his problems getting to the finish line of these restrictor plate races at times.

   And Kyle Busch may have dug himself a little hole when he blew a right-front tire during Friday practice, forcing him to a backup car for Sunday's Talladega 500. Goodyear said Busch flat-spotted the tire while coming on to pit road, apparently while practicing pit stops.
   After Jimmie Johnson's Charlotte problems, drivers seem more than a bit skittish here, certainly a bit subdued in the wake of Dan Wheldon's death in Sunday's Indy-car race at Las Vegas.
   Reaction to the horrific Las Vegas crash was widespread of course in the NASCAR garage. But drivers didn't really want to talk much about it.
   Their focus, instead, has been on Sunday's 500.


       The Sports Illustrated jinx? (Photo: SportsIllustrated)

  And one hot story comes from Chevy's Tony Stewart, who says he's been told that Ford drivers have been told only to work with other Ford drivers in this 'team-car' event.
   That may only be logical.
   But it still points up some of the 'ethical' issues some championship contenders might face here, that they might not face at other tracks.
   For example, consider the two-car tandem drafting here:
   -- Jimmie Johnson is pairing with teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Johnson has a shot at the title, Earnhardt probably doesn't.
   -- Edwards is pairing with teammate Greg Biffle. Edwards leads the standings; Biffle isn't even in the chase.
   -- Harvick is pairing with teammate Paul Menard. Harvick is in title contention; Menard didn't make the playoffs.
   And there are other pairings to consider, like Tony Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman.
   The question is simple – if, for instance, Earnhardt is pushing Johnson through the final laps, what incentive is there for Earnhardt to make any move to pass for the win, if that would take points away from Johnson?
    The question didn't seem to set well when posed to drivers.
    But it might well go to the heart of what racing is supposed to be – mano e mano. Not team orders, however disguised.


A lot of two-car drafting Friday at Talladega (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Newman's response, when asked if the win were to come down to him versus Stewart, why would he try to take points away from Stewart?
    "I think the best way to answer that is to say that whatever we can do to get both cars as high as we can at the end of the day is what we need to do," Newman says. "If that requires me to pass him, or him to pass me and finish one-two, or one-three, or two-four, or whatever it is then that is what we will do."
   TV reported that Ford team owner Jack Roush had a meeting this week with his teams to point out that Kenseth and Edwards are in the chase, and therefore teammates David Ragan and Greg Biffle weren't to come into this racing thinking about winning but rather about helping Kenseth and Edwards.
   Edwards: "I wasn't in that meeting, if there was one. From what I heard, I called into the meeting this week on Tuesday and we didn't talk about specifically that.
    "I did hear that there was a meeting where everybody kind of spit on their hands, shook and agreed to what we were going to do for one another. But I wasn't given the details of that meeting. I just heard that it maybe happened.
    "I don't think there was anything different this week than any other week.
    "When I asked Greg what he wanted to do and how we wanted to work together -- that is something we have done over the last few race, and it wasn't like someone told him 'This is what you have to do.'
    "We agreed on what would be the best for us to do, and I think we made that decision independently, and without someone telling us."

The death of Indy-car star Dan Wheldon hangs over NASCAR as well as Indy-car (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    So, on another tack, now Johnson is 35 points down – about the difference between winning and finishing 31st in a race. Has he still got a chance to win the NASCAR championship?
   Roush says only if the seven men ahead of him in the points all have problems in these last five races of the season.
   But Johnson says "There are still five races left in this chase, a lot still can happen, and I know what my team and I are capable of…and we're going to go out there and work for every point we can get."  
   Which is what Johnson says he was doing when he wound up on the inside of Ryan Newman battling for seventh late in last weekend's Charlotte 500.
   But Johnson, instead of considering the big picture and yielding the spot, which would have brought here for Sunday's Talladega 500 only 10 or points down, crashed and finished 34th.
    Maybe it's that Sports Illustrated cover jinx….
   "It's easy to say it was bad luck….but because I was on the cover of that magazine it didn't make me crash," Johnson says.
   "I was in a situation racing hard for a position and had one car close behind me and one tight on my outside turn the car around.
    "The magazine didn't create the aerodynamic situation that took place when I crashed.
    "We can joke about it and laugh and say 'Sure, the jinx continues.'
     "I really didn't know there was a jinx prior until everybody pointed it out to me."


     Dale Earnhardt Jr. (L) and Jimmie Johnson (R) talking with third teammate Jeff Gordon. The Hendrick teams tried four-car drafting Friday but that wasn't as fast as the two-car packs. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Now Johnson is back at in heading into Round Six of the 10-race playoffs, and Friday he and Earnhardt were tight in one of the two-car drafting packs for the two hours of practice. Teams say if NASCAR really wants to eliminate the two-car drafts, it should change the alignment of the cars' front and rear bumpers so they don't match up.
   Qualifying (this is an impound race, with no practice after pole runs) is set for 11:15 a.m. CT Saturday.
   Despite NASCAR's rules tweaks, all Sprint Cup drivers were running in extremely tight two-car packs. When making the swap from pusher to pushee, each pack lost considerable time and speed. But the issue of the closing rate by rivals when a pack ahead swaps is still unclear.
   This is an impound race, in order to keep teams from using special qualifying tricks. What that should mean is that drivers actually practice on race setups.
   Teammates David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr. were the two fastest in Friday practice, at 197 mph (on the third lap of a 20-lap run).
   The two-car tandems right behind them:
   Teammates Joey Logano and Kyle Busch.
   Teammates Johnson and Earnhardt.
   Teammates Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray.
   Teammates Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon.
   Teammates David Regan and Matt Kenseth.
   Teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle.
    Regan Smith and (Daytona partner) Kurt Busch.
    Landon Cassill and Tony Stewart.


How Many

So, now that the race is over, how close did we come to the 100 lead changes?

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72 lead changes among 26 drivers during the 3-1/2-hour race

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