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NASCAR at Talladega 2012: Massive crash mars finish of 'Dega race

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19 Total Updates since October 5, 2012
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Jeff Gordon puzzled by low Talladega attendance

If Sunday's on-track action was any indication, the stands at Talladega Superspeedway should have been packed. At least that’s what Jeff Gordon believes.

NASCAR estimated the attendance at 88,000 on Sunday, down from the 105,000 that attended the fall race last year (an all-time low since officials began announcing the numbers).

Track officials and NASCAR say attendance is down across the tour because of the tough economy. The rotating nature of the fall Talladega race doesn’t help matter either. This year’s race was held on Oct. 7, compared to Oct. 23 a year ago. The race was held on Oct. 31 in 2010.

Even with the date changes, Gordon said he couldn't wrap his mind around the drop-off.

“From an entertainment standpoint, they should be lined up out to the highway out there,” Gordon said. “I don’t get that at all. That makes no sense to me. So there’s got to be something more to it.

"If I’m a race fan, I want to see two- and three-wide racing all day long, passing back and forth. I want to see guys shoving one another. I want to see the Big One at the end of the race because guys are being so aggressive, and knowing that is not something that as a fan you could ever imagine putting yourself into and sort of defying danger.”

Last year’s Talladega races featured tandem drafting that was widely panned by a majority of NASCAR’s fan base. The finish of last year’s fall race saw the two-car tandem of Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer break away from the larger pack and settling the race amongst themselves.

NASCAR responded by changing the rules package for restrictor-plate racing, leading to a return of the big pack racing largely seen during the last decade. Gordon, like most drivers, doesn’t enjoy competing at Daytona and Talladega these days, but he can’t deny the discipline’s entertainment factor either.

“If I’m a fan, I would love this,” Gordon said. “I think it’s intense. It’s wild. It’s crazy. It’s something you’re going to have to see.”

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How did NASCAR sort out Talladega results?

After Sunday's NASCAR race at Talladega (results), team owner Roger Penske and Paul Wolfe questioned the finishing position of Brad Keselowski's No. 2 Dodge, which was fourth in the running order when caution froze the field after the last-lap wreck.

NASCAR rules, however, stipulate that a car will be scored where it blends back into line, even in the case of a wreck on the final lap.

"When it comes down to the end of the race, you freeze the field," said NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton. "You have that time, but we score it by all means. We have a lot of video, a lot of replay and things like that. It's about maintaining reasonable pace and other things. It took almost an hour to get our top 15 or so, and that's how we do things."

Pemberton said the Penske camp was satisfied with the explanation after viewing video of the final lap.

"Once they saw the video, they were good with it," Pemberton said. "If you froze the field, there was a car on its roof that would have been ahead of other cars, too, and that wasn't the case. As we walk through these things, everybody appreciates the effort that we took.

"Once we show them the evidence and where cars merge in, everybody understands. There's always a discrepancy or an argument over one spot here or there, but once you talk through things, everybody understands."

Penske Racing president Tim Cindric affirmed Pemberton's statement on his Twitter account. "NASCAR ruled @keselowski didn't maintain speed," Cindric wrote. "After watching the replay, probably fair."

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Busch blues: Kurt parked after disobeying orders

Kurt Busch's final drive with Phoenix Racing ended with a lap 99 crash and a reprimand from NASCAR that saw the 2004 Cup Series champion parked for disobeying orders to not drive away from safety officials.

Busch was leading when his throttle stalled, forcing him to fall back to Jamie McMurray, who had no choice but to turn the No. 51 Chevrolet off the racing surface. Busch's car slammed backward into the inside retaining wall but was later restarted.

The controversial driver then drew the ire of NASCAR officials when, under caution, he drove his injured car away from the safety crew without his helmet while scattering debris – including a track official's bag – across the apron. NASCAR responded by issuing an order to park Busch for the day.

Busch explained he didn't hear the order to stop, since his helmet (and thus his radio) was off, and was only trying to nurse the car back to the garage for repairs.

"This is the way my life works," Busch said. "Today is a perfect example. I am leading, I wreck, I run out of gas, I'm still that competitive guy that tried to get back in the race and now NASCAR is yelling at me because I don't have my helmet on and I'm trying to get it to the garage so the guys can work on it.

"Now I'm in trouble, now I have this little storm right here. This is my life. I'm not complaining because I put myself in a lot of these situations, but it's on to good things now moving forward. I got all the bad luck out of the way. This year has been a great year to test me in every way."

Busch will drive for Furniture Row Racing next weekend at Charlotte and was seen hugging and shaking hands with his Phoenix Racing crew in a final goodbye.

"That was more of an emotional hug of thanks and all the hard work this year," Busch said. "It just came to an end short. We ran out of gas, ran out of gas while leading. A miscalculation or our fuel cell wasn't picking up all the fuel. That is just small team blues. You work as hard as you can to keep up with the big teams and sometimes little itty bitty numbers will take you out."

Thus ends the relationship between Kurt Busch and James Finch, owner of Phoenix Racing. Together the pair ran 29 Sprint Cup races together; earning two top-10s and six DNFs.

Busch was suspended for a week in June after making disparaging remarks to a reporter but responded with a Nationwide Series victory at Daytona in July for the team's only victory of 2012.

Regan Smith will take over the No. 51 car next week at Charlotte.

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Hamlin's strategy pays off with respectable finish

Entering Sunday's NASCAR race, Denny Hamlin had a strategy to survive the carnage that is usually associated with racing at Talladega Superspeedway.

That plan entailed Hamlin spending the majority of the afternoon riding around in the back and biding his time until the closing laps. Then, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver planned to charge to front and hopefully leave with finish somewhere in the top 10 – a result which would almost certainly keep him in the thick of title contention.

Ultimately, that game plan seemed to work. The final boxscore showed Hamlin ended the day in 14th-place and is a mere 23 points out of first with six races still to go.

"With this strategy, you're basically conceding a win – a chance at a win," Hamlin said. "But you're just trying to do damage control and not finish in the 20s and 30s."

However, Sunday's result was by no means easy – and certainly wasn't uneventful.

With less than 10 laps to go, Hamlin was running 26th, nearly five seconds behind the leaders and seemingly destined to be short on fuel for the second straight week.

But a timely caution for Jamie McMurray's single-car spin allowed Hamlin to pit for gas, close up on the remainder of the field and then make his charge to the front – exactly as he and crew chief Darian Grubb drew it up beforehand.

And on the final turn of the final lap when a multi-car wreck consumed just about every car still on the track, Hamlin, despite spinning out, was still able to drive through the aftermath and leave the speedway with a respectable finish.

"We were waiting for what happened," Hamlin said. "It happened later than I expected, but still it's better than my average (finish), I can tell you that. We got a good finish based off of the wreck, but still it was a good solid day and that's all we could ask for is to not lose a bunch of ground."

But the "solid day" still wasn't enough to make Hamlin completely happy. Despite the effectiveness of the strategy, running in the rear is hard for a driver like Hamlin to accept.

"It sucks and I'm sure my fans are frustrated, but it's what you have to do," Hamlin said. "You kind of give up the chance at a win riding in the back all day, but you've got to miss the wreck. ... You've got to maintain the pace and that's what everyone did."

Now, though, with Talladega behind him, Hamlin is eagerly awaiting a return to the kind of racing where, as he says, his team "can control our destiny." That optimism is aided by the fact he is in a favorable position points-wise with a host of good tracks coming up.

"I feel pretty good," Hamlin said. "I feel like we're in a good spot. Less than a half a race back and we're just making sure we're still in it until the end."

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UPDATED: Results and standings from Talladega

If you saw the end of Sunday's NASCAR race at Talladega, you probably realize it was a bit hard for NASCAR to figure out where everyone finished (and if you still don't know why, here's the video).

Anyway, NASCAR just passed out a revised finishing order a few minutes ago, so here are the UPDATED results from today's race:

  1. Matt Kenseth
  2. Jeff Gordon
  3. Kyle Busch
  4. David Ragan
  5. Regan Smith
  6. Greg Biffle
  7. Brad Keselowski
  8. Travis Kvapil
  9. Ryan Newman
  10. Jeff Burton
  11. Kevin Harvick
  12. Kasey Kahne
  13. Martin Truex Jr.
  14. Denny Hamlin
  15. David Gilliland
  16. Terry Labonte
  17. Jimmie Johnson
  18. Bobby Labonte
  19. Aric Almirola
  20. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  21. Trevor Bayne
  22. Tony Stewart
  23. Clint Bowyer
  24. Sam Hornish Jr.
  25. Michael Waltrip
  26. Casey Mears
  27. Marcos Ambrose
  28. Paul Menard
  29. Dave Blaney
  30. Landon Cassill
  31. Michael McDowell
  32. Joey Logano
  33. David Stremme
  34. Jamie McMurray
  35. Robert Richardson Jr.
  36. Carl Edwards
  37. David Retuimann
  38. Juan Pablo Montoya
  39. Kurt Busch
  40. Cole Whitt
  41. Joe Nemechek
  42. Timmy Hill
  43. Josh Wise
CHASE STANDINGS:
  1. Brad Keselowski
  2. Jimmie Johnson -14
  3. Denny Hamlin -23
  4. Kasey Kahne -36
  5. Clint Bowyer -40
  6. Jeff Gordon -42
  7. Tony Stewart -46
  8. Martin Truex Jr. -48
  9. Greg Biffle -49
  10. Kevin Harvick -49
  11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -51
  12. Matt Kenseth -62
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Video: The final laps at Talladega

I've watched this video several times, and I still can't believe it. The various angles and the in-car shots of today's last-lap crash at Talladega Superspeedway are absolutely insane.

See for yourself:

The most amazing thing is the shots of Tony Stewart's car flying toward Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne. Michael Waltrip had a head of steam and was being pushed to the front by Casey Mears, and Stewart made a late move to slide down the track and block them.

It didn't work. Instead, Waltrip made contact with Stewart and it set off a massive collision which collected at least 20 cars.

Anyone who wondered if Sunday's race would come and go without the Big One happening was just kidding themselves. Of course it was going to happen; who knew it would wait until the final turn, though?

It's just crazy, honestly. But that's Talladega racing for you. Simply unbelievable.

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Keselowski relieved to escape Talladega

Brad Keselowski entered Talladega with a five-point lead over Jimmie Johnson and left with a 14-point unofficial championship advantage. He received damage in the last lap crash but navigated through the melee to finish seventh.

After the race, Keselowski repeated several times that he was just "lucky to survive Talladega."

His was one of the teams reportedly a half-lap short on fuel and pitted prior to the restart in case of numerous green-white-checkers. When the final accident broke loose, Keselowski was forced to take evasive action in order avoid the sideways car of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Keselowski was heavy on the brake – making light contact – and limped his way to the finish line.

"I heard four-wide for about two-and-a-half laps, and it's just a matter of time before you wreck and it happened," Keselowski said. "It's just Talladega. I rode the bottom lane, knowing a crash was coming and hoping I could escape it.

"It's not really how I wanted to escape...I'd rather just win the race. But with the way that the pit stops shook out and with everyone really close on fuel, staying out was definitely the right move because we didn't get a second green-white-checkered. I'm pretty sure a lot of guys would have ran out and that wouldn't have been the right move. The crew made all the right calls all day and we got a good finish out of it."

When told that he had an unofficial 14-point lead, Keselowski said, "Wow. That is big."

But Keselowski isn't taking anything for granted. There's still six more races remaining in the Chase and there are a lot of points left to be earned.

"There's still a lot of racing left," Keselowski said. "And at least we're not fighting from a hole."

Crew chief Paul Wolfe was equally relieved. He said he was looking forward to the next six weeks and perhaps, the stretch run to a championship.

"Talladega is out of our control," Wolfe said. "Now we can go back to racing where we have a bigger influence on the performance. We're looking forward to Charlotte and doing the things we've been doing to get to this point in the Chase."

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Dale Jr.: I'd quit if we raced 'Dega every week

Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat on the stoop of the No. 88 hauler, holding his head and grimacing repeatedly. It wasn't exactly clear what was causing him pain – his head, the way his car was mangled at the end of Sunday's NASCAR race at Talladega or how much he has grown to dislike the restrictor-plate racing he once loved.

Perhaps it was all of the above.

Earnhardt Jr. made his strongest comments to date about restrictor-plate racing after a last-lap crash triggered by Tony Stewart collected his car along with at least 19 others.

"If this is what we did every week, I wouldn't be doing it," he said after finishing 21st. "I'll just put it to you like that. If this is how we raced every week, I'd find another job."

The driver, who fell to 10th in the point standings and is now all but eliminated from NASCAR's Chase, said he felt OK ("I just took a lot of hard shots") and had no idea how the wreck happened ("I couldn't see, really").

But regardless of the circumstances, Earnhardt Jr. now despises the type of racing seen at Talladega and Daytona, where he used to be a master.

"I don't even want to go to Daytona and Talladega next year," he said, "but I ain't got much choice."

Told many fans might have thought Sunday's race was entertaining, Earnhardt Jr. seemed incredulous – and almost angry. He said people who wanted to see a big crash such as the one on the last lap were "bloodthirsty."

"I can't believe nobody is sensible enough to realize just how ridiculous that was," he said, looking at a group of reporters. "That is ridiculous that all those cars were tore up. And everybody is just, 'Ho hum, no big deal.' That's not alright."

Asked for suggestions as for what NASCAR could do to fix the problem, Earnhardt Jr. said he was just a driver, not an engineer. But he wondered aloud why smart people couldn't come up with a way to separate the cars a bit more than they are now.

"Everybody can get on the chip about it and get all excited about what just happened, but for the longevity of the sport, that ain't healthy," he said. "I don't care what anybody says. It's good for the here and now – it'll get people talking today – but for the long run, that's not good for the sport, the way that race ended and the way the racing is. It's not going to be productive for years to come."

As for his championship hopes? Earnhardt Jr. didn't know where he was in the standings, but it was obvious he realized his position (52 points behind leader Brad Keselowski) wasn't good.

"We'll keep digging," he said. "We'll see."

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Talladega results: Big One mars finish

The Big One waited until the final corner.

Matt Kenseth escaped a massive pileup in Turn 4 on Lap 189 of Sunday's Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega Superspeedway to win the fourth race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Jeff Gordon likewise dodged the 20-car wreck, triggered by contact between Tony Stewart's Chevrolet and Michael Waltrip's Toyota, and ran second, followed by Kyle Busch, David Ragan and Greg Biffle.

Brad Keselowski finished seventh and extended his championship lead to 14 points over Jimmie Johnson, whose Chevrolet was heavily damaged in the wreck and limped home in 17th.

Jamie McMurray, who had led 39 laps, spun in the tri-oval on lap 183, as he got a push from Kevin Harvick. McMurray brought out the fourth caution, but, miraculously, no other cars were collected in the incident.

Clint Bowyer led the field to the restart on Lap 188, but Stewart quickly took the point. Trying to block Waltrip in the final corner, Stewart turned across the nose of the No. 55 Toyota and triggered the wreck.

The first round of green-flag pit stops proved the undoing -- albeit temporary -- of Earnhardt, Kyle Busch and Trevor Bayne, all of whom were flagged for speeding on pit road. After serving pass-through penalties, all three drivers were lapped by the pack.

Just past the halfway point, Kenseth surged past Kurt Busch into the lead, marking a full recovery from a Lap 42 spin off the bumper of teammate Greg Biffle and subsequent spectacular save.

Bayne got his lap back as the "lucky dog" on Lap 99, when Kurt Busch lost fuel pressure off Turn 2 and spun off the bumper of Jamie McMurray's Chevrolet, slamming the wall and causing the second caution of the afternoon.

Driving James Finch's Phoenix Racing Chevrolet for the final time before debuting for Furniture Row Racing next weekend at Charlotte, Busch --helmet off and out of radio contact with his team and NASCAR -- drove away from the accident scene before NASCAR had cleared him and was parked for his effrontery.

It wasn't until 40 laps later that Earnhardt and Kyle Busch regained their lost laps. Earnhardt paced the field as the last car on the lead lap when NASCAR called a caution for debris on Lap 39. Busch also rejoined the lead lap as the highest-scored lapped car and restarted third on Lap 144 after the vast majority of drivers returned to pit road to top off their fuel tanks on Lap 142.

Caught up in the wreck on the last lap, Earnhardt came home 21st.

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It's race day! 'Dega start time, lineup and more

It's NASCAR race day at Talladega Superspeedway, and we've got the actual race start time, the starting lineup and some other facts about today's Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 for you below.

What time does the race start today? First of all, you'll note a later start time than most Sunday races due to the Chase: Most Sunday races in the final 10 weeks will begin at 2 p.m., and the last few races will start at 3 p.m. As for today's race, movie star Kevin James will tell the drivers to start their engines at 2:11 p.m. Eastern (1:11 local time). The exact start time of the Talladega race is 2:23 p.m. ET.

Race name/distance: Today's race is the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500. Talladega is NASCAR's largest track (2.67 miles), so there's 188 laps around the track for a total of 500 miles today.

TV, radio and live streaming: Today's race can be seen on ESPN. Every race for the rest of the year will be on ESPN except for Charlotte (which is on ABC). There IS live streaming of the race today, which can be found at NASCAR.com's "RaceBuddy" site and on the "Watch ESPN" app. If you'll be away from your computer and TV, check the Motor Racing Network's web site for a list of affiliate radio stations in your area.

*** NOTE: If you're out and about today and can't watch the race, make sure to follow me (@jeff_gluck) on Twitter. I'll be tweeting updates about the event. ***

National anthem: This is weird, but we actually don't know yet. The latest version of NASCAR's minute-by-minute lineup for today's race had "TBD" for the national anthem. We assume that means it's up in the air, unless TBD is a hot new music act we haven't heard of yet.

Tickets: The race is far from a sellout, as Talladega hasn't come close to filling its stands in recent years. If you want to show up on race day and get a ticket, there are plenty available.

Weather: The unofficial NASCAR weatherman, Brian Neudorff, says today's weather in Talladega should be dry, but chilly. A cold front swept into the area overnight, and the high temperatures for today should only climb into the low-to-mid 60s.

Last time: Brad Keselowski won the spring Talladega race when he was able to pull away from the other drivers coming to the line in an anticlimactic finish. One year ago, Clint Bowyer won his second straight fall Talladega event with a win – Richard Childress Racing's most recent victory.

Here's the starting lineup for today's NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway (Chase drivers in bold):

  1. Kasey Kahne
  2. Ryan Newman
  3. Clint Bowyer
  4. Tony Stewart
  5. Greg Biffle
  6. Jeff Gordon
  7. Carl Edwards
  8. Trevor Bayne
  9. Martin Truex Jr.
  10. Sam Hornish Jr.
  11. Michael Waltrip
  12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  13. Kyle Busch
  14. Joey Logano
  15. Matt Kenseth
  16. Paul Menard
  17. Jimmie Johnson
  18. Aric Almirola
  19. Casey Mears
  20. Marcos Ambrose
  21. Kevin Harvick
  22. Brad Keselowski
  23. Denny Hamlin
  24. Jamie McMurray
  25. David Ragan
  26. Jeff Burton
  27. Juan Pablo Montoya
  28. Regan Smith
  29. Kurt Busch
  30. David Stremme
  31. Terry Labonte
  32. David Gilliland
  33. Josh Wise
  34. Michael McDowell
  35. Timmy Hill
  36. Travis Kvapil
  37. Joe Nemechek
  38. Landon Cassill
  39. Dave Blaney
  40. Bobby Labonte
  41. David Reutimann
  42. Cole Whitt
  43. Robert Richardson
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Lineup: Kasey Kahne grabs Talladega pole

They say qualifying at Talladega Superspeedway has nothing to do with the driver and everything to do with the car, but you won't find Kasey Kahne complaining about that.

Kahne won the pole on Saturday for the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500, his third pole of the season and the 25th of his career – but first ever on a restrictor-plate track.

"We've tried for a long time to win one here, and it just shows how awesome that car is," Kahne said. "We have some fast cars this weekend."

Ryan Newman was second, followed by Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle. Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Trevor Bayne, Martin Truex Jr. and Sam Hornish Jr. rounded out the top 10.

Other Chase drivers included Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12th), Matt Kenseth (15th), Jimmie Johnson (17th), Kevin Harvick (21st), Brad Keselowski (22nd) and Denny Hamlin (23rd).

Bowyer, who qualified third, was surprised to qualify so well and said it will change his strategy for Sunday's race.

"I'm blown away, shocked that we're top three," Bowyer said. "We haven't been qualifying very good on these restrictor-plate tracks, and today, it definitely caught me off guard."

Only 43 cars showed up to Talladega, so none of the drivers missed the race. Among the qualifiers was Timmy Hill, who will be making his second Sprint Cup Series start.

Here is the starting lineup for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway (Chase drivers in bold):

  1. Kasey Kahne
  2. Ryan Newman
  3. Clint Bowyer
  4. Tony Stewart
  5. Greg Biffle
  6. Jeff Gordon
  7. Carl Edwards
  8. Trevor Bayne
  9. Martin Truex Jr.
  10. Sam Hornish Jr.
  11. Michael Waltrip
  12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  13. Kyle Busch
  14. Joey Logano
  15. Matt Kenseth
  16. Paul Menard
  17. Jimmie Johnson
  18. Aric Almirola
  19. Casey Mears
  20. Marcos Ambrose
  21. Kevin Harvick
  22. Brad Keselowski
  23. Denny Hamlin
  24. Jamie McMurray
  25. David Ragan
  26. Jeff Burton
  27. Juan Pablo Montoya
  28. Regan Smith
  29. Kurt Busch
  30. David Stremme
  31. Terry Labonte
  32. David Gilliland
  33. Josh Wise
  34. Michael McDowell
  35. Timmy Hill
  36. Travis Kvapil
  37. Joe Nemechek
  38. Landon Cassill
  39. Dave Blaney
  40. Bobby Labonte
  41. David Reutimann
  42. Cole Whitt
  43. Robert Richardson
DNQ: No one.
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Jeff Gordon plans 'aggressive' Talladega approach

When Jeff Gordon suffered a stuck throttle, causing him to crash out of NASCAR's opening Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway, most observers believed the four-time champion had eliminated himself from title contention.

Gordon responded with a pair of top-five finishes at New Hampshire and Dover and has lost just one point to the leaders during that span. He's even climbed out of the cellar, jumping to 10th place, 48 points behind leader Brad Keselowski.

But there's still a long way to the top. So for Gordon, Talladega represents the ultimate opportunity to climb back into the championship picture – and he could do so with a win on Sunday afternoon.

The key, Gordon said Friday, is aggression. He expects to qualify out front and stay there, too – no dropping back to the rear of the field for most of the race.

"(The championship leaders) are thinking, 'We can't afford to get caught up in the big one,'" Gordon said. "And I'm sitting here thinking, 'I can't afford not to be leading laps, running up front and to not win this race.'"

Gordon admitted he studied the last few plate races at both Daytona and Talladega, but doesn't feel as though it helped his approach from a competitive standpoint. He was fast in practice but mostly focused on cooling his gauges in the middle of a pack, a problem that's plagued the team since the season-opening Daytona 500.

"We're going to be more aggressive when it comes to the temperatures we run, but we also know what happened to us at Daytona," Gordon said. "That was more from a failure, so we're going to push the limits this weekend. We've seen other teams do it and get to the finish."

Despite the challenges, Gordon is excited about Sunday's race – the first time he's felt that way about a plate race in a long time.

"For us, it's not racing for points, it's about racing for the win and being aggressive," he said. "... I'm excited that we can come in here and not be looking at taking a conservative approach. I think that can get you in just as much trouble as being aggressive."

Gordon used a similar approach to make the Chase in the first place, climbing back from as far as 24th in the standings after the 12th race of the season, ultimately erasing a 12-point deficit at Richmond to bump Kyle Busch from the playoffs.

Gordon's newfound excitement and aggression could land him in Victory Lane. And with a little luck, it could land him right back into championship contention.

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Is Clint Bowyer pumped for 'Dega? Uh, YEAH

Due to its unpredictability and knack for producing multi-car wrecks, odds are no track in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup will play a bigger role in deciding the outcome of the championship as Talladega Superspeedway.

Just ask Clint Bowyer.

"This is a big weekend for our sport, our Chase and everybody involved in it," Bowyer said Friday at Talladega. "This is one of the tracks that can separate somebody and possibly win you a championship."

Bowyer described 'Dega as a "game-changer" – that one race in the Chase where anything can happen and can easily scramble the standings. It's really no different than a 3-year-old overturning a checkers board in the middle of the game.

"I think this track is the reason why everybody in the Chase is still in it," Bowyer said. "This is the only track that all of us can get wiped out or maybe all of us but one or two. ... This is a dangerous wild card race for the Chase and you've just got to go out there and be as careful as you can and also be aggressive as you can and try to get yourself in the situation to win this thing."

If a championship contender can get through Talladega relatively unscathed and leave with a respectable finish, then the path to winning the title is far easier. But a poor result on Sunday and that path becomes littered with obstacles.

"It seems like each and every week these first few, it's just been a point or two here, a point or two there," Bowyer said. "This is one that can swing 20, 30 points and take you out of the running or push you into it."

And for those drivers who find themselves far back in the standings three weeks into the Chase, Talladega also provides them with an opportunity to climb back up the point ladder and become a contender – assuming they can avoid the trouble which lurks on every lap.

"It doesn't matter if you lead all the laps and run up front all day long," Bowyer said. "If you're not there when that checkered flag falls, nobody knows who led the most laps in most of these races anyways. Nobody even cares. They all care about who won and, more importantly, where this Chase bunch finished, because that's what it's all about right now.

"So that being said, it is fun to be able to be in my situation. I've got to make up some ground and this is the one track where I can make up a lot of ground on those guys. You've got to use it as an opportunity."

And unlike Daytona – the only other plate track on the schedule – Talladega offers drivers the chance to be more aggressive due to the wider racing surface. This, in turn, makes races there more unpredictable and more prone to producing moments that make fans take notice. All of which are seen as a positive by Bowyer.

"This is a good thing for our sport, it's a good thing for our Chase and this is a good thing to have in this Chase race," he said. "A lot of drivers and teams hate this part of it, but at the end of the day as a fan, this is what we all want to see."

Considering he's won this race for the last two years, if anyone would know the secret to dealing with the always-chaotic and ever-changing nature of restrictor-plate racing, it would be Bowyer, who finds himself 25 points behind championship leader Brad Keselowski.

"I love racing here," Bowyer said. "It's so much fun. That's such a thrill to be able to go around there and know that the storm is brewing and all hell is fixing to break loose and you're fixing to be a part of it. It's a pretty neat situation to be in."

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Stewart lands Bass Pro, but what about McMurray?

A day after their new partnership was unveiled in Missouri, Tony Stewart and Bass Pro owner Johnny Morris made the union official and announced an 18-race sponsorship deal for 2013 in a press conference at Talladega Superspeedway.

Morris and Stewart have an existing friendship which developed into a business partnership – a rarity among top-level sponsors in NASCAR. Bass Pro has sponsored some of Stewart's Sprint car efforts in the past, but 2013 will take their relationship to a far greater level.

"We're excited," Morris said. "It's like a dream coming true."

Bass Pro Shops will replace Office Depot at Stewart-Haas Racing, though not for as many races (18 races instead of 22). Combined with Mobil 1's 11-race sponsorship of Stewart's No. 14 car, the driver/team owner still has nine unsponsored races for next season.

Though Stewart still needs more funding, securing the Bass Pro deal is big for the defending champion after Office Depot's decision to pull out of the sport left a gaping hole in the sponsorship lineup.

One team's gain, though, is another's loss.

Morris said Bass Pro Shops will not continue at the same level with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and driver Jamie McMurray in 2013, which means EGR now must find funding to replace the chief sponsor of its No. 1 car. Morris said his company's agreement was ending with EGR and he couldn't pass up a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to pair with Stewart.

"I didn't go to Johnny trying to steal a sponsor from somebody," Stewart said. "We just let it be known to him that we had an opportunity available on our side, and if he ever decided he was wanting to make a change, we wanted him to know we were available."

The Bass Pro relationship with EGR may not be over, though. EGR president Steve Lauletta said Friday the company is in talks to have Bass Pro remain as a primary sponsor, just in a much more limited capacity.

"I anticipate you'll see the Bass Pro Shops logo on the hood of our car for a few races next year," Lauletta said.

McDonald's and existing sponsors such as Liftmaster will have the chance to increase their involvement, Lauletta said, an opportunity which wasn't available before. EGR's teams have been fully sponsored for the last three seasons.

In addition, Lauletta said there could be new sponsors who link up with EGR.

"There's a number of new companies we've been talking to who have shown interest in doing primary races and we haven't had the ability to deliver on those – and now we will," Lauletta said. "I believe we'll get a few of those over the goal line."

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