Commentary

Drivers ready for 'another' style

Updated: October 23, 2011, 11:48 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Kyle Busch had a unique thought going into Sunday's Good Sam Club 500 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN). Racing at Talladega is "almost like another form of motorsports," he said.

Spot on.

And, as if to make sure this race is uncharted to everyone, NASCAR has tweaked the rules just in time for the annual autumn crapshoot at Casino de Alabama -- d.b.a. Talladega Superspeedway.

This may make for even more precarious scrambling in the two-by-two drafting that resembles … oh, let's see … how about stretch-limo racing?

Two cars behave as one aerodynamically, but there are two chauffeurs who must trust each other totally -- or at least hope for the best from each other.

"In that two-car pack the pusher can't see anything, so he is trusting the guy in the front to drive him through the right spot," said Matt Kenseth, who jumped to third in the standings, behind Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick, with a win at far-more-routine Charlotte last week.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon
Jason Smith/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson will all be looking for help to reach the front at Talladega, and as teammates, each other will be a good place to start.

This time, the restrictor plates are slightly larger for a few more horsepower. And the popoff valves in the radiators are slightly more sensitive, to keep drafting partners from running in tandem for long periods and breaking away. They'll have to switch places more often, to cool their radiators and ease the pressure that would trigger the valve.

The potential for scrambling the Chase standings is such that leader Edwards and his No. 99 Ford team are "coming in here with our fingers and toes crossed," he said.

Edwards has his two-step partner picked, Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle, with whom Edwards has hooked up regularly since tandem evolved as the best way to draft in restrictor-plate racing at Daytona last February.

"I feel like I have the best partner out there," Edwards said. But he conceded that the memory still stings from 2008, the last time he came this close to a championship, when his tiny mistake here ruined his title hopes. Late in the race, in old-fashioned pack drafting, Edwards bump-drafted Biffle slightly off-center, wrecking both of them, and others.

"I wrecked him pushing him in 2008 and then he was pushing me when we wrecked at Daytona this year, and then we had a really good run here at Talladega in the spring," Edwards said. They finished sixth and seventh here in April, but were in the mix up front until the final shuffle at the end.

The miscues "were painful when they happened, but I think it has made us a stronger team, him and I together," Edwards said. "We are mindful of that stuff and we know intimately how bad it can go with just a small mistake. I think that can actually help right now with our efforts."

Jimmie Johnson won here in April, pushed by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Johnson, as far behind in the standings as he is after crashing last week at Charlotte -- 35 points behind Edwards -- actually feels looser coming in here than he did during his five straight championship runs.

"When you're coming to Talladega and you have to protect something, it's tough," Johnson said. "I don't have anything to protect, so Talladega isn't as dangerous for me this year or as scary as it has been in years past."

Johnson When you're coming to Talladega and you have to protect something, it's tough. I don't have anything to protect, so Talladega isn't as dangerous for me this year or as scary as it has been in years past.

-- Jimmie Johnson

With the more sensitive radiator valves, "We are going to have to swap more often," said Earnhardt, who hasn't won here since 2004 but won four in a row and five of six here from '01 to '04.

"I don't really see what we're trying to accomplish and how that can do us any good," Earnhardt continued on the radiators. "I think that will just put us all in difficult situations, more often, because when you make a swap it is a difficult situation for the other drivers that aren't swapping that have to dodge you and hope they know where you are going …"

Busch, fourth in the Chase, 18 points behind Edwards, is in classic position to benefit from a big crash that takes out one or more drivers ahead of him in the standings.

But, "This is definitely a place where you don't have a notebook," he said. "You don't come in here with marks around the racetrack written down where you want to lift, where you want to pick up the throttle … It's all circumstantial."

Harvick has finished first, second and fifth in his last three outings here. At any other place, that would seem to bode well for his making up his five-point deficit to Edwards, or more.

"We have had success here, but in the last race here Carl had a good day and did what he had to do," Harvick said.

Besides, "We are not worried about anybody else," Harvick said. "We are worried about ourselves …"

You have to be, in this other form of motorsports.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.

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