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December 20, 2014

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Lead or tailgate? That is the Talladega question

Restrictor-plate racing has often been compared to a game of chess. Strategy is key to a driver’s every move as he tries to anticipate how the draft and the movements of the cars around him will affect his position. One wrong move and a car can end up being tossed around the track like a bowling pin.

So how does a driver avoid “The Big One”? There seem to be two schools of thought on that. Many drivers choose to run up front since the middle of the pack is where a majority of the big wrecks occur. That seems to make sense if you have a stout enough car, the ability to use the draft effectively and you don’t drive too aggressively.

The other school of thought is to remain in the back for the majority of the race and then draft to the front with 20 laps to go. This can keep a driver clear from all the jostling in the middle of the pack, but it also means that when wrecks do happen, they will always be ahead of those cars bringing up the rear. A driver better have a good spotter if he’s going to put himself in a position where he has to navigate his car through the carnage that could unfold in front of him.

I can remember watching Dale Jarrett use this strategy to his advantage. He would run in a small pack of cars behind the main body of vehicles and in the final laps his group in the rear would run single file, catch the draft and pull to the front.

But what will Jimmie Johnson, who is only six points ahead of Denny Hamlin, do at Talladega this Sunday? “We tried both approaches and the last three years we’ve made it through there without any big trouble,” Johnson said this week. But I bet Johnson and Hamlin choose to stay as close to the front as possible.

Ultimately, as the race gets into its final laps, there is no safe place on the track. A multi-car crash can happen anywhere as the drivers use the draft more aggressively to put them in a position to win. That’s the great thing about restrictor-plate racing. Just about anyone has a chance at winning the race. “We see a lot of teams trying to be conservative and smart and get to the end of the race and go from there," Johnson said. “The problem we have now is when everybody decides with 20 laps to go that it’s time to race, you have to race. You need the best finish you can get and that’s where the crashes are.”

It will be fascinating to see how the championship contenders attack the Talladega chessboard on Sunday.

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