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Fanning the Flames: Is There Any “Right” Strategy for the Big 3 at Talladega?

Something to think about while the boys are running single file for the first 150 laps on Sunday: had Jamie McMurray made the Chase, he’d be sitting 112 points behind Jimmie Johnson in the standings with a good look at another win coming up. Yeah, I know: Shoulda, woulda, coulda… but it lends credence to, at the very least, awarding more points for victories.

Speaking of the Chase, for the love of God NASCAR, please don’t go to a hokey elimination-style format. Nine of the 12 teams have managed to eliminate themselves already. That leaves us with three drivers, four weeks, starting with one totally unpredictable venue… and it happened without any further outside manipulation.

OK, I feel better now, so let’s get to your emails.

Q: Does Jeff Burton want a championship for RCR or does he want it only for himself? His chances were out the window before the last race, yet it seemed like he did everything he could to slow down Kevin Harvick. I really don’t care for Harvick’s attitude at times, but I did not feel that Burton was a team player at all. Sorry, I just had to vent. Very frustrated here. — Sharon Jones

A: Well, Harvick finished third, and it’s not like he was going to catch Mark Martin or Denny Hamlin, so I don’t think Burton’s failure to roll over for the Almighty No. 29 hurt Harvick that much. In fact, the only dumb move I saw was Harvick giving Burton a side-bump under caution.

Were I Burton, I’d have gone all Han Solo on Harvick post-race:

“Showing your displeasure ain’t like driving karts, boy. Without precise calculations you could cut a valve stem, or slice through a Goodyear and that’d end your championship trip real quick, wouldn’t it?”

You gotta be a Star Wars fan to appreciate that one, therefore we’ll move on… but not before I say that we get this Chase rhetoric shoved down our throats so often, we forget that there are a couple dozen other teams out there racing for a win every week. Don’t get me wrong, the championship is important, but when a guy that hasn’t won since October 2008 has already led the most laps and is trying to claw his way back to the point with 150 to go on a half-mile bullring… well, I think Burton is a team player only to a point. He’s got a crew chief and crewmen that he has to look in the eye when he climbs out the window, not to mention a mirror.

Besides, when did the mentality get to be one of putting more importance on helping a teammate than getting the win yourself? I sometimes tire of reading the ghost of Dale Earnhardt being called upon, but “WWED?” He wouldn’t have moved aside, I can tell you that.

Q: Clint Bowyer is 60/1,000th out of tolerance (whatever that means) and NA$CAR eliminates him from running for the championship with a huge fine. Golden boy Johnson and his owner that NA$CAR says can do no wrong is asked to replace a part before the race and doesn’t get even a fine? Tell me how we are supposed to not think there is something funny going on!!! — Anyone but the 48

A: When I was a kid, it infuriated me when I saw a fan with a shirt that read “Anyone but the 11!” Now I find those amusing, regardless of number.

Anyway, as I understand it the driveshaft cover was replaced because it had a crack in it. I also understand that the cover is a safety feature, not a performance piece, so I’m not up in arms about this one. However, I believe NASCAR should have learned by now that without proper clarification, it risks being perceived as winking-and-nudging with one team while issuing the death sentence to another.

A simple, concise explanation goes a long way, particularly when your approval rating is lower than President Obama’s. (Don’t bother with nasty emails about playing politics in a NASCAR column — yesterday’s Rasmussen Report showed Obama with a Presidential Approval Index rating of -18.) Just stating fact.

Moving on. Quickly.

Q: What’s up with the Ganassi to Ford rumors and Petty to Toyota? Isn’t it late in the game to be switching manufacturers for next year? You think either will happen? Thanks, Matt! Always enjoy the read! — Annie

A: You’re quite welcome. Annie, I don’t think it’s too late in the season for a change that will occur Thanksgiving week. From a production standpoint, it’s a matter of getting the new engines in and tuned, and hanging new bodies. With the common template CoT, the alterations are almost nil, making it even easier for the fab shop to get to work.

As for whether the two operations are moving on… I don’t see Earnhardt Ganassi leaving the engine alliance it currently enjoys (swimmingly so) with Richard Childress. Petty to Toyota? Heck, nothing would surprise me with the shape things are in over there. An existing team could make a money grab, bail Gillett out and come out smelling like a new leather interior if the short-term storms aren’t enough to capsize the boat.

Q: Hey Matt! This Talladega race is the most interesting I can remember. Not only does it involve the plates, but Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick all have to figure out a strategy to get them to the end AND in front of the other two. All three guys are pretty good at at least two of the last three tracks, too. Fans can bitch all they want about the racing, but I think this season is coming down to a hell of a finish. — Joshua Evens

A: Always good to get some optimism in the column. And you’re right, this Talladega race is a tough one to figure. Do you lay back and wait until 30 to go to make your run through the field? We all know what happens inside of 30 laps back in the pack.

Wanna stay up front away from the carnage? Fine, but you have to have a car capable of staying there, because it’s easy to get shuffled to 17th in one lap. And again, we all know where the majority of those Big Ones start — mid-pack.

I think Harvick will look to lead. He’s got to like his chances, and I’m sure that Earnhardt-Childress engine can keep him up front. The other two, I’m not so sure about. Hamlin isn’t the type to lay back if he doesn’t have to, but he’s suddenly boasting about a newfound patience and a game plan to win the Chase.

As for Johnson, I think Talladega is in his head. Hamlin and Harvick have made little quips — Hamlin saying that Harvick, not Johnson, was the man to beat a couple weeks ago — that were meant for Jimmie, but I don’t think the other drivers can shake him. Think about how many different ways he’s won the Chase; he’s come from an impossibly deep hole, he’s fought tooth and nail and pulled away down the stretch as well as beat the field into submission. So other teams don’t faze him — but a lack of control does.

Johnson and Chad Knaus know that when the car is right at most any non-plate track they can run top five, and just putting themselves in position to win has paid off numerous times. That belief of knowing they and their equipment are better than everyone else goes out the window at Talladega, though.

So what does Johnson do? If he goes to the back, he has three teammates that can duck back with him, aiding in a dash to the front when it’s go time. If he stays up front, there’s always the risk of being hung out to dry by any number of JGR and RCR cars. And regardless of what strategy he chooses, the Big One and the couple Not-Quite-Big Ones can turn a hero’s vision into a fool’s quest in a heartbeat.

I don’t know the answer here, Josh. But I do know this is one I wouldn’t dream of missing.

We’re done here, class. Thanks for hanging until the end. As your reward, check out the Video Clip of the Week: I can’t watch a Talladega race without thinking of the most beautiful October afternoon I’ve ever seen. And the racing was pretty spectacular, too. About the most masterful piece of wheelin’ I can remember…

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