The Setup: Expect gambles at Talladega

May 01, 2014, Chris Rice, Special for NASCAR.com, NASCAR.com

The Setup: Expect gambles at Talladega
Crew chief Chris Rice sizes up story lines, strategy for Talladega

Editor's note: Chris Rice, crew chief for the No. 99 Rheem Toyota for RAB Racing and driver James Buescher in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, has joined NASCAR.com as a guest writer for the 2014 season. Here is his first-person analysis on the top story lines heading into the race weekend at Talladega Superspeedway:

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Many times, you arrive at Talladega thinking "roll the dice." In truth, this year, they're doing that in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series just about every week.
 
The new postseason format has been a game-changer. I mean, the only one looking at points is Jeff Gordon and the poor guy keeps finishing second, second, second. That same theme will play out this week at Talladega -- teams will go for gambles on fuel, they'll try to get themselves track position, but they'll also be trying learn a lot to let them have a better car when they go back to Daytona.
 
Teams are probably going to work throughout on aerodynamics here at Talladega, because you don't have to have your car low in drag. You don't want your car to be so sleek; you still want it to have some downforce like you would at a Kansas, Kentucky or somewhere like that.
 
The new qualifying format is going to be fun for everybody to watch, including myself. I'll sure be up there watching it. That changes the way you take a race car to the track. A fast race car is still going to be fast, but you're going to need two or three teammates or drafting partners to help you.
 
When they strap those helmets on, all they're looking for is speed. That's what we want out of a race-car driver. You want to go as hard as you can go, but the problem is that guys that really don't have teammates are going to try to get in line with partners. For our team, we want to be linked up with Joe Gibbs Racing cars because we run their motors and run Toyotas.
 
If you're not together with a plan when you leave pit road, it's really hard to get together because no one is going to wait on you out on the track. You've got to do what you can do to get up with those guys. The Sprint Cup cars are going to be the same way -- the Hendrick cars, the Roush cars. It's going to be teammates locked together -- not tandeming -- but locked up trying to get the draft off your Front Row Motorsports cars, your BK Racing cars -- teams that are there together, but the bigger teams are going to be there still trying to get the draft off them.
 
In terms of setup, you want the whole race car out of the air as much as you can, so you don't want much movement. When we talk about deltas or limits, that's what we're talking about -- differences from the straightaway to the corner. You want the car to be as low as possible at all times. You work really hard at locking the car down at Daytona and Talladega, and just letting the driver drive it. They drive well at those places, it's just that you want to get all the speed out of them you can.
 
Fantasy NASCAR is going to be hard to make a pick this weekend because so many teams have a legitimate shot to win. I mean, Martin Truex Jr., despite the year he's having, he's a pick no one is looking at. He could win this race with all the ECR engine help they get; it's time for them to turn their season around.
 
But in terms of a pick even though it's a crapshoot, Matt Kenseth's speedway cars at JGR have been awesome the last couple of years. I think Matt rides down Interstate 85 trying to find the air off the big 18-wheelers, because he's gotten that good at using aerodynamics and the draft.
 
When Dale Earnhardt was living, he was that good. Everybody said, 'Well, Dale Sr. can see the air.' I just think they know where it's at, they know how the weight comes off the car in front of them, and they know how to take advantage of it.
 
Kenseth has done a great job late of learning it, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. has learned it. He's got some of his dad in him, for certain, but I still like Matt Kenseth to win it.