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Avoiding the Big One the biggest job

10/6/2006

There likely will be a multicar accident -- aka the Big One -- this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway. If not, there's certainly a chance of a regular-sized two- or three-car accident at the 2.66-mile behemoth.

"Certainly after Talladega we could know who doesn't have a shot at the championship. There will be some teams who probably have hurt their chances a great deal."
-- Jeff Burton

The sport's largest venue rarely goes quietly, as Mark Martin knows all too well. Asked for his outlook entering the UAW-Ford 500, Martin gets right to the point.

"I dread it," he said with a laugh. "I don't care. I'm going to wreck anyway, so, really, I don't even dread it. I wreck every time I go there. I'm going to wreck this time. I already know it. I need to stack up some points here and there so we can give them back there. That's the way I look at it."

Martin hasn't always wrecked at Talladega, but he has crumpled up plenty of sheet metal there over the years. Crashes seem inevitable because of the pack nature of restrictor-plate racing, and Martin knows that if there's trouble, he's likely to end up in the middle of it.

"If I was just lucky, I could miss those wrecks. I don't know. Maybe they won't have them, but I would assume it would be worse than ever with new asphalt, so I don't know," Martin said. "I say that I'm going to wreck jokingly, but, realistically, last year I went in there worrying about it and what it would do to my championship implications, and this year I'm not worried because it doesn't matter.

"We might or we might not, but last year I really thought if we could get through there without one, we could contend and that 100 points [lost by wrecking] would have made a contender out of us a year ago. This year, I figure whatever happens, happens. It's just an honor and a privilege to be in the Chase."

Repaved for the first time in years, Talladega Superspeedway is much smoother than it has been in the past. Drivers debate what that will do to the racing, whether cars will be able to separate from each other or whether the pack will be tighter than ever.

The answer to that won't be known until the race begins. Martin, though, simply heads into races there expecting something, anything, to go wrong.

"It should make more wrecks, I would think. We'll run into each other more -- cut each other off," Martin said. "You can't see five-wide. A guy three-wide can mess up a guy fifth-wide and not even know it. It is what it is. It's Talladega, man. Grab onto your seats. Here we go."

One driver with better luck at Talladega has been Jeff Gordon, who will be looking for a record-tying 11th restrictor-plate win. In addition to tying plate master Dale Earnhardt in points wins at Daytona and Talladega, he'd equal Earnhardt's 76 career victories.

Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson have won six of the last 10 restrictor-plate races, with Johnson winning earlier this year at Daytona and Talladega. Gordon won two plate races each of the past two seasons but has watched Johnson supplant him this year.

This is one of five tracks where Gordon hasn't won a pole, and he's coming off a 15th-place run there in May. He knows Talladega is one place it really doesn't matter where you start.

"We're all trying to miss the big wreck that usually happens here, but that can happen at the front of the pack, in the middle or at the back," Gordon said. "I haven't had the chance to drive on the new surface yet, but I heard they did a great job and that it's smooth as glass. But I don't think that will change the racing one bit -- it will still be wild.

"In the past, we've been able to run from the white line to the wall, and I think you're going to continue to see that. If guys are being more aggressive trying to get up front and I think it's getting too crazy, I may try to get out of that situation and just bide my time. We need to be there at the end of the race to have a chance to win."

Rookie Denny Hamlin agrees that all bets are off during a race at Talladega. Penalized for aggressive driving at Talladega in May, he ended up 30th. Hamlin said that although a wreck might be inevitable, he just wants to avoid it.

"It will come down to a having a car that will handle in the draft and a little bit of luck this weekend," Hamlin said. "You do what you can to avoid that trouble and save your car, but it's not always in your control."

Chase leader Jeff Burton agrees, and seemingly won't be shocked by anything he witnesses this time around. A shakeup in the standings is almost to be expected.

"Certainly after Talladega we could know who doesn't have a shot at the championship. There will be some teams who probably have hurt their chances a great deal," Burton said. "The thing about Talladega is it's easy to be in the lead pack and finish 25th, it's easy to be riding there minding your own business and have another car land on top of your car, and it's easy to have bad things happen quickly. It's a very volatile race, in my opinion, when you look at the championship contenders."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.