Welcome to NASCAR's wild-card weekend.
It's Talladega, baby, where wreckin' and racin' are part of the lore of one of NASCAR's famed superspeedways.
For the handful of guys still in the hunt for a Cup title, it means a conservative approach for much of the race and hoping to crawl up to the front to make a charge at the end. The key is to avoid traffic jams and the potential for the "big one."
But another element now comes into play: NASCAR has made some rule changes since the last go-round, changing the restrictor plate in the hopes of discouraging tandem — or "love bug" — racing. Cars won't be able to stay clustered together in pairs of two very long because the second car will overheat in a hurry.
No one knows how this will play out, but without question, for guys like Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and others chasing a title, the key is keeping your car in one piece at the finish line.
"It's going to be three-, four-wide crazy, intense finish," said Jeff Gordon, who has drifted out of contention with poor finishes in the last two races.
"I think you are still going to see two by two, I think you might just see cars swap a little bit more, but we are going to try to do everything we can to not have to swap," Gordon said. "I think the racing is better without the swapping, I think it is safer without the swapping. Not exactly sure where we are headed, but sometimes they will make changes for this race to evaluate what we need for Daytona in February, which I think is a little bit of what is going on. But I think we are still going to see a lot of the same of what we have seen the last couple of restrictor-plate races."
The race will have an odd feel, regardless. The tandem racing concept is all about the friends and family program. You need to hook up with somebody to go faster. Some guys will pit concurrently to make sure they stay together.
But at the end, it's a competitive scrum for first place, and the second guy is always going to be the first loser. That's what happened in April, when the Hendrick Motorsports tag team of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 1-2. Johnson rewarded Junior's sacrifice with a pallet of Schlitz beer, per Junior's request.
"It's something that we have to do," Kenseth said. "I guess you could argue that all restrictor-plate racing isn't the same as what we do all the time, so you always have less control over your own destiny and you can't really do anything by yourself.
"It's different. I wish there was a way to do it different, and I'm sure they're probably going to figure that out eventually with the rules, but it's just the way you have to do it right now. It's kind of weird doing a team race. … If you win or finish second, you know the other guy was just as responsible for your finish as you were in a way, so it's definitely different."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun