You could give yourself the mother of all headaches thinking about all the various different 'clinch' scenarios in play for the Chase contenders seeking to get through to the third round of the Chase at Talladega Superspeedway. The truth of that matter is that with the exception of Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick (already through by virtue of race wins at Kansas and Charlotte respectively), absolutely no one is safe until the chequered flag came out.

But some are more at risk of crashing out of the 2014 championship battle than others, and particularly so in the case of fan favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr. who is currently bottom of the standings among the 12 drivers still in the Chase. The bottom four get cut from contention after today's race, meaning that Earnhardt has to pull out something special if he's to survive.

"We have only one route and that's to Victory Lane, and that's the only way we can get forward into the Chase," Earnhardt agreed. "It's definitely a tall order but we have nothing to lose. We're going to go out there and try to accomplish that goal and give it all we've got."

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With Talladega being prone to big multi-car wrecks catching out the innocent and unwary, many drivers have opted to hang back and play safe rather than risk running right in the mix where they could be taken out by someone else's accident. But Earnhardt figures that he can't afford a conservative strategy this weekend.

"We need to be in the front and we need to be controlling the restarts at the end of the race - being able to choose the inside or outside line and who's going to be pushing you on those particular starts," he said. "That guy there is going to be the one controlling the race.

"I need to be in the lead or toward the front on every lap so I'm there at the end of the race," he continued. "We're not going to just magically pull something out of our hat that no one else has at the end of the race on pit road to get the lead. We have to be there all race long. We can't just flip the field with the last few pit stops and miraculously use a strategy no one else has.

"With our cars and how capable I know our cars are and have been throughout the season at plate tracks, I know we can fend off pretty much most challenges that we're presented with.

"You have to be smart, be risky and always try to move forward. There are certain races here where there is a bide-your-time moment. There is a time where there is part of the race where any move is unnecessary and you're calculating how necessary each move is every lap you run. [But] we'll have to try to get toward the front the entire race."

Earnhardt had a strong run here in the spring race but was ultimately thwarted when he was forced to make a late pit stop for fuel. Such a near-miss can't happen this time if he's to have any hope of making the Chase.

"We got the lead here in the race earlier this year and were a little short on fuel. We ended up coming down pit road and not taking the gamble. The gamble worked out for the other guys who were in the same boat as us. We didn't do it for some reason," he said. "[This time] we'll probably have to gamble a little bit on fuel and be a little bit short, but to get that advantage over 42 other cars, you're going to have to risk more in regards to fuel mileage or what pit strategy you have on pit road.

"We're willing to do that. We don't have anything to lose. If the race plays out like that, it would be the best scenario for us," he added. "I'm ready to race and ready for some fun. I like the challenge. I feel like I have some fortune and a little bit of luck to still have a shot. After how bad we've run the last couple of weeks and the troubles we have, to even have an opportunity is pretty neat on one side of the coin. I'm looking at it in a more positive manner than 'We're in panic mode and we've got to go crazy here.'"

Earnhardt didn't get the boost he really wanted and needed in qualifying on Saturday afternoon, after general confusion over new procedures for superspeedway tracks caught a lot of top drivers out (including several of Earnhardt's Chase rivals) and left Earnhardt himself in 29th place for the start of today's GEICO 500.

"That was definitely unique," said Earnhardt after the dust had settled on the chaotic qualifying session, admitting that he and his team hadn't had a strategy for how to tackle the new five-minute, two-group first knock-out round. "We didn't have one. We just pulled out on the track and ran a lap and that was the lap.

"At plate tracks, single-car qualifying is probably a better solution for us. They may have some other ideas and we may go through some other variations of different formats," he added. "From my perspective, I don't think any of the drivers really enjoy it that much, but there may be some that do."

But as far as Earnhardt is concerned, that poor starting position doesn't change the masterplan for Sunday's race: "The car is good. We are just going to draft our way toward the front and we will just have a lot of fun on race day."

Earnhardt's current predicament can't be said to be the driver's fault. He led the points early in the season and came into this round of the Chase looking strong enough to go all the way, but a tyre blow-out at Kansas and a problem with the gear stick of the #88 at Charlotte cost him badly, meaning that he now urgently needs a trouble-free race that will allow him to deliver to his true potential.

"We went to Phoenix and tested and had the same vibrations. We worked on that for two days and didn't really find it, but the guys are working really hard trying to figure out what the problem is," he said. "We broke that one shifter in the race and we put another shifter in and it broke at Charlotte, so we've got some sort of an issue that we need to resolve. It's like a ghost. It's hard to find, but they'll figure it out."

"The shifter handles aren't breaking because shifters are weak or because they're light," Earnhardt's crew chief Steve Letarte contributed. "They're breaking because of vibrations in the race cars ... It's not that you're yanking on the handle so hard, it's cracking. It's the riding around with this buzz that is making it crack.

"You just kind of hope you fix the problem. In this sport, stuff always breaks. That's part of it," he added. "It's a disappointing part to break because it's kind of what I consider a dumb part, it doesn't make you go faster like a spindle would be or a nice motor part."

"It's not a problem here, for whatever reason," Earnhardt picked up. "The car is real smooth, like a bass boat across the lake at 5am yesterday. It was smooth as glass, so that was nice," he laughed. "We won't change a lot of tyres this weekend, so that really narrows that opportunity for error. The tyre that they brought here is super, super durable. We might not need to change tyres at all in the race. But, I'm sure we'll put rights on it at some point or another."

If Earnhardt can avoid the technical distractions of recent races then perhaps having clarity of purpose and strategy will be exactly what Earnhardt needs to win the race, which would automatically propel him into the Eliminator 8 Round regardless of the points standings that are against him right now.

"Knowing that I have to win will be in the back of my mind for every lap throughout the race," Earnhardt agreed. "It'll be different. I don't think I've been in that situation before; I don't think any driver has where it's win or nothing. There are a couple of us like that, too," referring to his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jimmie Johnson and Penske rival Brad Keselowski who are in similar dire straights with their Chase campaigns.

"It'll be interesting," he summed up. "Hopefully it's a real exciting race. I hope that everyone walks away satisfied when it comes to the fans and media. We know what we need to do, and we'll work hard every lap to do it."