- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Talladega is always different, just by the track's very nature. The longest track NASCAR visits, its width leads to four-wide racing with engines fighting their restrictor plates for every last gasp of horsepower.
It's a harrowing race every time drivers take the green flag, and Sunday's UAW-Ford 500 (1 p.m. ET, ABC) may just take things to a new level with teams racing the Car of Tomorrow for the first time at a superspeedway.
The car is debuting at Talladega now in order to see if any changes to the rules package are needed for next year's season-opening Daytona 500. It's a challenge for everyone, especially the drivers in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
After a rough start that sees him fifth in points, 126 behind leader Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick is ready for whatever's thrown his way. And he feels better about heading to Talladega than he did before NASCAR's recent test session at the track.
"Obviously the biggest unknown is putting all 43 cars on the track and seeing where everybody's going to wind up," Harvick said. "You don't want to fall far behind; if you get too far behind the pack gets substantially faster than it was before but it seems harder to catch up because the cars are so [aerodynamically] draggy compared to what we used to run.
"So they draft a little bit different. At the test I got behind, I don't remember who it was, but we went from the back of the pack all the way to the front. And it's just a matter of getting in the right line and making the right decisions throughout the race, and keeping your car from getting tore up.
"So it's still going to be a lot of the same Talladega characteristics as we had before. And missing the wreck and trying to put yourself in the right spot at the end [will be a key]. So I think you're still going to be able to get [drafting] help and get runs and things like that."
With flat tires plaguing Harvick in the first two Chase races (where he finished 17th at New Hampshire and 20th at Dover), he was happy to avoid the misfortune that struck many of his competitors at Kansas. A sixth-place finish has kept him within striking distance of the leaders and it's business as usual heading to Talladega.
Well, as usual as anything can be at the 2.66-mile facility.
"Our approach hasn't changed. We go and try to be as aggressive as we can every week and make our cars run as fast as they can to put ourselves into position to win," Harvick said. "If you can't do that, then you have to make the best day possible out of the days that you're having.
"The first two weeks we had some tire trouble, three different tire problems, just cut tires and had bad luck and we made decent days out of those particular days, and that's what's helped keep us where we are in the points, because we didn't give up.
"My team did a great job getting everything back together and making laps up and just putting ours into position to finish the races and other people have had trouble, finishing in the high 30s and low 40s. So we've avoided those days and in order to win this thing you're going to have to be consistent and have to go out and run good every week. When you have those bad days you've got to prevent them from being disasters."
Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton wasn't as lucky at Kansas, ending up 36th. He's now 10th in points, 186 behind Johnson. While the cars will be different this time around, Burton expects the normal Talladega craziness to be the norm.
The only thing that's going to separate the cars, in my opinion, is pit stops. If you have a bad pit stop you could get separated.
In other words, drivers will spend most of the day racing in tight packs, with the dreaded wreck known as the "Big One" just a bobble away from igniting.
"We're going to see a race that looks very similar to the races we've seen at Talladega. I think we're going to see big packs of cars. The only thing that's going to separate the cars, in my opinion, is pit stops," Burton said. "If you have a bad pit stop you could get separated.
"The interesting thing about the Car of Tomorrow at Talladega is, and I know this contradicts itself, it's easier to lose the draft and at the same time it's easier to catch the draft. It's much more situational. I believe that if you get far enough behind, catching the draft might be questionable. Even if they are three-wide or two-wide, there's a point of no return where you won't catch it anymore.
"We still don't understand exactly what that point is. I also saw the possibility where people got lined up, say the top 10 got lined up, and 12 on back was double-file. The top 10 will pull away. Those are the things that are hard to tell what's going to happen, but I anticipate big pack racing for the majority of the race."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
With a couple of weeks of bad luck behind him, Kevin Harvick is back in the hunt for the Nextel Cup title. With treacherous Talladega looming, he has to hope his good fortune at Kansas holds, writes Mark Ashenfelter.