Chase leaders hope to avoid Talladega carnage

TALLADEGA, ALA. (AP) - They plan and tinker, double-check this and triple-check that.

Then, they cross their fingers, stick a rabbit’s foot in their race suits, and hope the luck goes their way.

That, in essence, is Talladega Superspeedway.

“My outlook is like everybody else’s,” said Jeff Burton, who will start Sunday’s Sprint Cup race on the outside of the front row. “I hope I miss the big wreck. If you make it through that part, you can be there at the end.”

By the end of the weekend, the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship could be a whole lot clearer _ or just a big ol’ mess.

Talladega is the biggest wild card among the five playoff races left on the schedule, meaning it’s still a little too early to declare points leader Matt Kenseth or the guy in his rearview mirror, Jimmie Johnson, as the only drivers with a legitimate chance to win the Cup.

For those farther back, including Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon, this might be the best chance to make a big move in the standings.

“We recognize where we are in the points and that this could be a turning point for us,” said Gordon, who trails Kenseth by a rather-daunting 36 points and teammate Johnson by 32. “We need to come out of here with a pretty solid finish and make up some of those points that we’re behind right now. This is a track that we can do it at.”

Talladega is the longest, fastest oval in the series, but horsepower-sapping restrictor plates lead to tightly bunched racing at 200 mph _ putting a premium on working with others in the draft and avoiding the slightest bobble that can cause a crash that takes out a huge pack of cars.

There’s a sense that good fortune is as much a part of the Talladega strategy as making the proper adjustments on the cars or getting out of the pits faster than anyone else.

Just ask David Ragan, who stunningly claimed a victory for Front Row Motorsports in the spring race at Talladega. Getting a boost on the final lap from teammate David Gilliland, who was drafting on his rear bumper, Ragan passed three of the biggest names in the sport _ Kenseth, Johnson and Carl Edwards. Gilliland made it a 1-2 finish for the tiny, underfunded team.

Ragan called it “a true David vs. Goliath moment.”

Nah, that’s just Talladega.

“The chances of that perfect storm happening in two consecutive races at Talladega is probably not realistic,” Ragan said. “We’re certainly not counting on any situations like that to come out thin air late in the race.”

Kenseth and Johnson dominated the first half of the 10-race Chase.

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