And the favorite to win Sunday's Aaron's 499 Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway is...

Whoever is running on lap 188.

And even then, there is no guarantee that a car running on the final scheduled lap will finish the race, let alone finish first. Such is the nature of restrictor-plate racing, where the 'big one' can happen at any time.

"It's such a crapshoot there in the last 20, 30 or 40 laps that you never really know who is going to win, what's going to happen and where the wreck is going to come from," said Kyle Busch, who won last year's Aaron's 499.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., a five-time winner at Talladega, said it's 'like a lottery'.

Jeff Gordon would understand that assessment. In the past four years, Gordon has three wins and three DNFs because of crashes.

"Mentally, you have to prepare yourself for this race," said Gordon, who has a series-high twelve restrictor-plate wins. "And during the race, you have to know when to be aggressive and when not to be aggressive."

Gordon says he has a strategy -- 'I like to get to the front as fast as I can, that way I can stay away from a lot of the jockeying for position' -- but that doesn't mean he always follows his advice. When he swept both races in 2007, he led a race-high 71 laps in April and only the last lap in the fall.

Running at the front offers no guarantees. Last fall, Carl Edwards took out Roush Fenway Racing team-mates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, who were running 1-2 at the time, along with nine other cars, when he ignited the 'big one' with fewer than 20 laps to go.

"You just have to survive there," Busch said, "and hope you somehow stay out of the inevitable big wreck."
Five to watch:
David Reutimann, #00:
Reutimann continues to be the biggest surprise in the top twelve, and he will have to snub history to stay there. His record at Talladega is poor: three DNFs in four races. Two DNFs were for engine failure. He is ninth in the standings, 55 points ahead of #13 Mark Martin.
Casey Mears, #07:
Mears has done nothing this year: No top tens in eight races, with an average start of 31.9 and an average finish of 21.4. And now he is part of the biggest news story of the week; owner Richard Childress is swapping the teams of Mears and the #29 of driver Kevin Harvick after Talladega. That just means more scrutiny on Mears. A good run Sunday will help, and he has done well in his past three starts at the track with finishes of sixth, seventh and 14th.
Mark Martin, #5:
Talladega is not one of Martin's favourite tracks; he designed his part-time schedule the past two years to avoid it. Still, he has two wins and 22 top tens in 42 starts. He is 13th in the standings, nine points behind #12 Jeff Burton.
Tony Stewart, #20:
Stewart picked up his first Cup win in 20 races at Talladega last fall, finally breaking through after finishing second six times. Stewart also is getting closer each week to winning his first race as an owner-driver. Last week at Phoenix, he finished second for his third straight top five.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., #88:
All of Earnhardt's five wins and two second-place finishes at Talladega came before 2005. Since his win in October 2004, he has two top tens in eight races, including four DNFs.
Track chatter:
Jamie McMurray:
"Things happen in the blink of an eye, and it's so easy to get caught up in a wreck. You can have a great race all day and then three laps from the finish, someone gets excited and does something completely out of character and it ruins the day for a lot of guys."
Matt Kenseth:
"Talladega is more like going to a 200 mph go-kart track. Everyone's car handles there, and you run wide open all day. It's more about drafting and getting in the right position. The biggest challenge is not getting in a wreck. Next to that is having your car in the right place with the right cars so you don't get hung out and lose positions."

AJ Allmendinger:
"I don't know how much strategy there is at Talladega other than race like heck, stay out of trouble and be there at the end."

by Bill Marx/Sporting News


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