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Planning no lost art amid chaos of Talladega

April 15, 2011, Mark Aumann,

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Results may not always pan out, but drivers constantly plotting ahead for finish

It may be a split-second decision that ultimately makes the difference in Sunday's Aaron's 499. But the driver who celebrates in Talladega Superspeedway's Victory Lane has probably spent countless hours mulling over all of the permutations involved.

There's no way to know exactly what will happen in the closing laps. But that doesn't mean the men behind the wheel aren't making plans beforehand.

"You're thinking all the time ... What if you go here? What if you go with this guy? It really wears on you a little bit, mentally."


NASCAR's grandmasters are thinking several moves ahead at Talladega. And being prepared can pay off in spades.

"Once you get down to the nitty-gritty of the race and trying to play the chess game that goes on all day, you've got to really pick and choose your spots," Kyle Busch said. "You're thinking all the time ... What if you go here? What if you go with this guy? It really wears on you a little bit, mentally."

Kevin Harvick made a slingshot pass of Jamie McMurray in the tri-oval to win this race last spring, and lost the fall race by mere inches following a last-lap caution as teammate Clint Bowyer was declared the winner via loop data and video examination.

"I think most people have a plan in their mind as to how they want it to play out," Harvick said Friday. "Last year for us, it played out for one of the very few times as we laid it out on paper and talked about it before the race.

"It played out all the way to the checkered flag. Very rarely does that happen."

Harvick said there are so many variables to consider that it's almost impossible to stick to a game plan. But it certainly is advantageous to be aware of the possibilities.

"For a lot of us it depends on who you are around, how many cars are around and what position you are in," Harvick said. "Are you leading? Are you pushing? Are there cars on the outside? Is there one group or two groups? Are you catching the guys in front of you and where are you going to go?

"There are just so many things running through your mind as to what you want to do and where you want to go and where you want to be."

Bowyer said having confidence in your ability to make the right moves at crunch time is crucial to success.

"The key to this plate racing is being comfortable with it, being confident with your moves," Bowyer said. "Obviously, having a good hot rod goes a long ways, but you've got to be comfortable out there. You've got to know where to go when the time is right, how to get yourself in that situation, then more importantly, getting yourself in that situation.

"... You usually can tell where you needed to be. When you first start, it's always hindsight. 'Well, that's where I should have been.' Then you start learning ahead of that curve where to be, and then you start putting together how to be there."

Harvick said being proactive is always preferable to being reactive, particularly at 195 mph. However, that doesn't guarantee success.

"I try to stay a couple of steps ahead of it and have a plan before I get to where I'm going as to what I want to do," Harvick said. "Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't."

For Jeff Gordon, the two-car bump draft has added a unique dimension to restrictor-plate racing. In a big pack, sometimes it was better to be chased. Now it seems like the opposite is true.

"I want to be the guy pushing on the last lap because I think the guy running second is going to win," Gordon said. "It definitely makes it very challenging.

"Now when you come to Daytona and Talladega, the mind set, the strategy, the chess match that it becomes, is the most interesting part about it. And I like that you've got to think a lot about what's going on out there. But sometimes you've still just got to be super-aggressive."

Busch said planning a possible winning move for the final lap could be an exercise in futility. If there are two cars battling for the win, a normal slingshot move may work. But if there are multiple two-car tandems, all bets are off.

"It kind of depends on what the two cars are doing," Busch said. "It also kind of depends on what else is going on around you. If you're side by side coming to the line four-wide, you're really not going to be able to pull out and win the race. You're better off trying to push that guy and hopefully it's your teammate."