Here are some storylines, notes and drivers to watch for during today's NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway:
Can Jimmie Johnson actually finish a restrictor-plate race?
Daytona and Talladega have been Jimmie Johnson's albatross in 2012. It started with an early wreck in the Daytona 500, followed by an engine failure at Talladega, then another crash at Daytona in the July event. Altogether, the 48 car's best finish this season in three restrictor-plate races is a dreadful 35th.
To win his sixth series title, it's obvious Johnson must avoid a bad finish today – otherwise the points hole he'll find himself in will be too much to overcome. Knowing this, keep an eye on the 48 team and the strategy they implement this afternoon.
Typically, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus tend to be conservative and prefer to ride around in back until the closing laps. But that plan isn't without risk. In this race last year, Johnson got mired in traffic and was unable to work his way through the field and finished 26th.
Talladega is a 'game-changer'
Talladega is the one race in the Chase that no one can predict and will play a pivotal role in deciding the championship. There isn't a driver this weekend who hasn't said as much, with Clint Bowyer even going as far to call this race a "game-changer."
Some contenders will play things safe; lagging in the rear, trying to dodge the inevitable "Big One" and then charging to front late. Others will do the opposite; thinking the best way to avoid the carnage is by being ahead of it. Drivers in this category include the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., each of whom has said that they plan to be aggressive and use this race to catapult them back into title contention.
A return to form for Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
Speaking of NASCAR's most popular driver, there was a time when Earnhardt Jr. was looked at as "the man" anytime the Sprint Cup Series rolled into a restrictor-plate track. But having not won a plate race since 2004, Earnhardt Jr. is no longer the dominant player at either Talladega or Daytona.
However, if we are to take Earnhardt Jr. at his word, we might see a return of the driver who once won four consecutive races here. Friday, he said he's treating this race as if "he has nothing to lose," and as such, would go "no-holds-barred" in his quest to win. A hungry and determined Earnhardt Jr. on a track that he absolutely loves could mean scary news for the competition.
• Ever since Talladega opened its doors in 1969, the track has been notorious for producing first time winners. In total, 10 different drivers have scored their initial win on NASCAR's longest track – included on that list is Brad Keselowski, Brian Vickers, Ken Schrader and Davey Allison.
• In the Chase era, four times out of nine a driver not competing for the championship has went to Victory Lane. This means, if a non-Chaser is going to win a playoff race, this is likely where it's going to happen.
• You wouldn't think qualifying matters at Talladega, where everyone is seemingly running the same speeds. But recent history suggests that starting up near the front is a good indicator of who might win. In the last 16 races, the eventual winner has started outside the top 15 on only four occasions.
1. Brad Keselowski
In a race where just about anyone can be victorious, you can't go wrong with Brad Keselowski. After all, he does have two wins in the last three weeks and is going back to a track where he won at in April.
2. Clint Bowyer
The defending winner of this race two years running, it's obvious Clint Bowyer has mastered the nuances of racing at Talladega. All that remains to be seen is whether that plate mastery has carried over with him to Michael Waltrip Racing.
3. Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart equates restrictor-plate racing to playing chess. And even though he refers to himself as a checkers player, the owner-driver doesn't give himself enough credit as he won at Daytona in July – and has won here previously.