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Saturday, October 19, 2013
Will Dega 'big one' shake up Chase?

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Of course there's always something screwy going on at Talladega, often something new, so here's the latest, going into Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 500 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Qualifying was rained out Saturday, but Aric Almirola had already won the pole Friday. He planned it that way.

Aric Almirola
Aric Almirola, who topped the speed chart in Friday's first practice (202 mph), put the iconic blue No. 43 on the pole for Sunday's Chase race at Talladega.

Current NASCAR rules provide that, in case qualifying is canceled, cars will start in the order of the highest speeds of the first practice. So Almirola and teammate Marcos Ambrose played Friday for rain on Saturday.

"We went into practice with a plan," Almirola said Saturday. "We knew there was a small chance for rain today."

So, while cars were running in drafting packs Friday, "me and Marcos got a big run on the pack and put up a good lap." They left a big gap, then allowed the suction of the draft to snatch them forward so fast that Almirola's pole-winning speed was 202.000 mph.

Not that qualifying means a great deal once the kaleidoscopic exchanges of position start in a restrictor-plate race here.

But it is a little garnish on the annual autumn crapshoot so notorious for shaking up the Chase standings.

Ambrose will start third, directly behind Almirola, and plans "to give him a good push to get him going," Ambrose said, "and hopefully work together to stay up front until the first stop."

Matt Kenseth
Chase leader Matt Kenseth can only hope he will not be collected in a "big one" at Talladega.

Jeff Burton went along for the ride with them in the draft Friday and will start second, outside Almirola.

"I was just along," Burton said. "I didn't have a grand plan."

None of the first three starters is even in the Chase. Now, isn't that Talladega for you?

The top two in the standings, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, start 12th and 11th, respectively. That's not too precarious for the start of a plate race, but Kevin Harvick, third in the Chase, will start a treacherous 33rd.

As the points leader, Kenseth has the most to lose by getting caught up in the almost inevitable multicar pileups here called the "big one."

But Kenseth, with his typical cool, just shrugged in a philosophical way. Still, can he completely block the possibility of being toppled by someone else's crash out of his mind?

"Certainly I realize today that we're the point leader and pretty close to being tied with the 48 [Johnson, who is only four points back]," Kenseth said. "And if you have a bad week any week [of the Chase], that's going to hurt.

"And your chances of having a bad race here are probably a little bit higher than other tracks because you can get caught up in stuff," Kenseth continued.

Johnson often likes to sandbag here, hanging toward the back until time to go, late in the race. Kenseth usually prefers to run up front and let the melees happen in his mirror.

"I still feel like all the fans pay a lot of money … to see a race, and I've always just liked to go race," Kenseth said. "Sometimes that plan can change if your car is not fast or you feel uncomfortable where you're at, and there's cars all over … but I think I've been pretty spoiled the last few plate races when we've led a lot of laps … and that's probably the safest place."

In the most recent plate race, at Daytona in July, "I was stuck in the middle, and we didn't have a lot of speed," Kenseth said, "and I could see things around me were not looking great …"

So he decided to "back up a little bit and try to get in a different lane … and a wreck happened that exact corner. I was in it."

But that was way before the Chase began. On Sunday, the big one could be the Big One for somebody's championship hopes.