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Stakes, tension high at Talladega

TALLADEGA, Ala. - The racing is always intense at Talladega Superspeedway, where drivers spend 500 white-knuckled miles trying to avoid the inevitable wreck known as "The Big One."

The tension should be even higher today. The restrictor-plate debut of the Car of Tomorrow, the Nextel Cup debut of former Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve, and a fierce title hunt should have the field on edge for what figures to be a wild race.

"It's going to be interesting," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said yesterday. "I'm going to try not to be in a wreck, because there's probably going to be at least one or two big ones."

Most of the 12 Chase for the Cup drivers have been outspoken in their displeasure with Villeneuve making this his first race. The Canadian qualified sixth, putting him in front of all the title contenders at the start of the race.

Aside from a two-day test session at Talladega last month, Villeneuve has almost no drafting experience - a frightening prospect for this kind of race.

Restrictor-plate races are different from anything else in NASCAR. The bulk of the race is one huge pack of cars racing inches apart, nose-to-tail, spread three and four wide across the track. One wrong wiggle can trigger a massive accident, sending cars flipping across the superspeedway.

Now the regulars must also deal with the COT, which has not raced on a track bigger than 1.322-mile Darlington Raceway. Drivers had one test session last month, followed by two practice sessions Friday before the cars were impounded after qualifying.

That left little time to adjust to the nuances of the car and the differences it created. The COT's rear wings and taller cockpits, have compromised sight lines.

Former series champion Matt Kenseth said it's like trying to see the car in front of an 18-wheeler on the interstate.

"It's a little bit intimidating," Kenseth said. "When you're behind a [car] and can see everything that's happening in front of them, you can react if there's a reaction on the road. Here, if you're right up on somebody, a wreck could happen and you're not going to have any idea. You're not going to see it until you're probably in it."

The poor visibility prevented drivers from seeing hand signals, a crucial part of communicating during a race. Earnhardt suggested that drivers use white gloves so their hands are a bit clearer, but that's not a suitable solution. If drivers are blind to the hand signals, it's bound to create a mix-up.

"You used to rely on a guy waving us off - don't bump-draft me," Denny Hamlin said. "Now you don't even have a hand signal that you can throw out there. I don't think anybody is willing to stick their hand out the left side."

NASCAR is expected to heavily police the bump-drafting during the race, with a close eye on enforcing the ban of bumping in the corners.

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