Stars heavy favorites for Talladega race

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Will Martin Truex Jr. complete the Busch Series' version of a grand slam Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway (ABC, 3 p.m. ET)?

Winner of three straight races at the 2.66-mile behemoth, the driver will have to edge out teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., amongst others, to reach Victory Lane yet again.

Earnhardt won the race in 2003 and was second in '04, crossing the stripe after Truex. Earnhardt skipped this race the last two years, but the lack of one of his favorite drafting partners didn't keep Truex out of Victory Lane.

This time, though, it won't be much of a surprise if they're both upstaged by another of Earnhardt's favorite drafting partners: Tony Stewart. Stewart has yet to win at Talladega, but it will come as no surprise if he finally does.

And the Aaron's 312 seems as good a place to start as any, given Stewart's Busch Series success at Daytona in Chevrolets fielded by Kevin Harvick Inc. Stewart won the February Busch races in 2005 and '06, and might have challenged for the win this year if he hadn't wound up flipping his Monte Carlo instead.

Stewart has been a dominant force in Talladega's recent Nextel Cup Series events, even though he's yet to win. A runner-up six times, he has eight top-5s and 10 top-10s in 16 Cup starts. So if Stewart were to win Saturday, he stands a good chance of sweeping the weekend as has been done several times already this season.

Seemingly a bit wound up about things these days -- witness Stewart's comments comparing NASCAR to professional wrestling -- he's not upset he's winless at Talladega, mainly because he knows a driver is at the mercy of the draft, especially in the Cup races.

And the draft undoubtedly will play a key role in the Aaron's 312, even if the difference in aero packages between Cup and Busch alters the style of racing to a degree.

"You have to strictly rely on what everybody else around you is doing," Stewart said of plater racing. "It's still not real racing when somebody else has to go with you and somebody else can dictate how you run. If you don't ever have anybody go with you all day you never have a shot at winning. But if you have guys go with you, you have a shot.

"We haven't won there, but look at how many second-place finishes we've had. Anytime you can finish in the top two is like a win at Talladega, especially when you've done it as consistently as we have. As volatile as Talladega can be with getting caught in a wreck and this or that, for us to have finished second there six times, and three times in the past four races, that's something to be pretty proud of.

If his schedule held up, Stewart planned to spend his time before heading to the track fishing with good friend and veteran racer Red Farmer. Stewart craves time spent with his cell phone turned off, enjoys it a lot more than having to rely on drafting partners.

"I don't like having to have a guy behind you or in front of you dictate what you do and where you go. That's really the one reason why I dislike it," Stewart said. "It's very nerve-wracking when you can't plan your moves unless you know what the guy behind you or in front of you is going to do."

Stewart said it's all a matter of making split-second decisions, some of which simply aren't going to work out. Others will take a driver to the front, making him look smart in the process. Stewart, of course, has plenty of experience at the track, while David Gilliland will be making his first Busch Series start, and just his second Cup start, at the track.

For Gilliland, it's a much different mind-set. He knows how crazy the race can become -- and has heard plenty of talk about the "Big One," but he's still got plenty to learn about plate racing.

"When you finish a race at Talladega, you're almost never physically tired like if you had just raced at Bristol or Martinsville, but the mental strain and the concentration needed will wear you out mentally and emotionally."
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"Talladega is wide open. The speeds are so fast, and with 43 cars stacked bumper to bumper, it doesn't take much for things to get crazy in a hurry," Gilliland said. "You've got to stay focused and be on your toes at all times. It's definitely a race you can't relax for one second at. It takes total concentration because the slightest mistake can trigger a huge pileup. You can count on 312 miles of white-knuckled action; that's for sure."

Gilliland said the key from his perspective is respecting the other drivers, even if that means giving up a spot at a given point just to try to ensure keeping the car in one piece. Sooner or later, though, he knows something's gotta give.

"If everyone is patient and willing to help each other out, we'll make it through the race OK," Gilliland said. "It's when everyone starts getting antsy and trying to make passes that they shouldn't, or when no one cuts anyone any slack that wrecks start happening."

It'll be the first Busch Series race on the repaved facility, presenting yet another challenge to those who haven't already tested out the surface in last year's Cup and Craftsman Truck Series events.

That's just another reason Earnhardt knows he'll have a bit of work to do if he's to resume his winning ways at Talladega.

"With the new pavement at Talladega, combined with the restrictor plates, anyone could drive a lap at full-speed in these cars, but that only makes it more of a mental challenge during the race," Earnhardt said. "The whole pack can run three-wide and wide-open, so it makes every move you make more critical.

"You have to have all of your senses working full-time to get to the front and then try to stay there. When you finish a race at Talladega, you're almost never physically tired like if you had just raced at Bristol or Martinsville, but the mental strain and the concentration needed will wear you out mentally and emotionally. It's fun, but it's tough."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.