Talladega poses major challenge in Chase for Sprint Cup

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 05: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge, stands in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 5, 2012 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Brad Keselowski bumped Jimmie Johnson from the lead in the Sprint Cup Chase heading into Sunday’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
Getty Images for NASCAR

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Ride or race was the question NASCAR’s title contenders are considering as they prepare for Talladega Superspeedway.

The fourth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup could be the one that shuffles the 12-driver championship field. The use of restrictor plates bunches the field, and the unpredictability of drafting and relying on partners usually creates a chaotic race that can end title hopes.

So when qualifying ended Saturday, and Kasey Kahne sat on the pole for the first time at a plate race, drivers began discussing in earnest how they will attack the 500-mile event.

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‘‘We just really need to race and race hard,’’ he said. ‘‘We’re a long ways back right now, and if we can’t make up points at a track like this, we probably aren’t going to make them up.’’

Kahne’s lap of 191.455 m.p.h. bettered Ryan Newman’s 191.145, putting a pair of Chevrolets on the front row for Sunday’s race. Asked what it meant for Kahne’s race, he didn’t offer many details. ‘‘It means I’m going to start first, that’s it,’’ Kahne said. ‘‘I’ll try to lead that first lap. If we’re up there, we’ll try to stay up there.’’

That’s the big debate among drivers who differ on strategy for Talladega. Some may ride around in the back of the field waiting to make a late charge in an effort to avoid potential dicey situations, but some want to be aggressive and be out front as much as possible.

Kahne, who is sixth in the standings and trails leader Brad Keselowski by 32 points, insists he’ll race. So will two-time defending race winner Clint Bowyer, who has had Talladega circled as the track that can most help his championship chances. He’s fourth in the standings and has talked all week about gaining big ground Sunday.

Then he surprised himself with a third-place qualifying run that forced him to reconsider his race strategy. ‘‘I am blown away, shocked, that we were top three,’’ Bowyer said. ‘‘I thought, definitely going into today, my plan for the weekend was we were going to qualify poorly and ride around in the back. Well, we’re in the front, and I’m going to try to stay there.’’

Three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart qualified fourth and was followed by Greg Biffle as Chase drivers took four of the top five starting spots. Jeff Gordon was fourth, and was followed by Carl Edwards, Trevor Bayne, Martin Truex Jr., and Sam Hornish Jr. Truex, Bowyer’s teammate at Michael Waltrip Racing, said he will race on Sunday.

‘‘I’ve been crashed here more than not, so we’re going to go out there and race,’’ he said. ‘‘We’re going to have fun and we’re going to try to stay up front and lead some laps and hopefully be around at the end. I’ve crashed here going for the lead and I’ve been crashed here trying to ride around in the back. So there’s no safe place.’’

Michael Waltrip was 11th and followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., as two drivers who once dominated restrictor-plate races will start side by side Sunday.