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Talladega race may give NASCAR standings another jolt

Times Staff Writer

NASCAR’s Chase for the Nextel Cup playoff heads this weekend to Talladega Superspeedway, an always turbulent race that requires a hefty dose of driver patience to survive and win.

But after the wacky race at Kansas last Sunday, where several of the 12 Chase drivers tumbled in points, patience could be in short supply as the contenders press to get back in the hunt.

That could lead to one of the multi-car crashes that are synonymous with Talladega, wrecks that often collect innocent drivers who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Moreover, NASCAR will use its new Car of Tomorrow at the Alabama track for the first time at Sunday’s UAW-Ford 500 -- adding another unknown factor to the race.

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The result: The Chase standings “could be turned upside down again,” said Kevin Harvick, the Bakersfield native who is fifth in the playoff, 126 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. “Talladega is a place that’s just so unpredictable,” Harvick said Tuesday.

Before the race at the Kansas Speedway, the third of the 10 Chase races, most of the 12 Chase drivers were bunched closely together in points. But their rankings were spread out after a race delayed twice by rain, shortened by darkness and marred by wrecks that involved several Chase contenders, including two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart.

Johnson, the reigning series champ, now leads his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon by only six points.

The pressure is really on the drivers in the ninth through 12th spots -- Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin -- to do well Sunday if they hope to win the Cup.

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Talladega is the series’ longest track at 2.66 miles, and the high-banked course also is one of the fastest and most treacherous.

It’s one of two tracks -- Daytona International Speedway is the other -- where NASCAR requires the cars to use carburetor restrictor plates that keep a lid on speeds, for safety. The plates also typically keep the cars bunched in packs of 20 or more, like a freight train, with each driver “drafting” the others to jockey for position. But the packs worry everyone, because a slip by just one driver could start a crash that ends the day for several others.

Dario Franchitti, this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner and IndyCar Series champion, is expected to begin his shift to NASCAR at Talladega by driving a race Friday in the ARCA series, which is a level below NASCAR’s Busch and top-tier Cup series.

It would be the first step in Franchitti’s plan to take over the No. 40 Dodge in the NASCAR Cup series next year for the team of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. The announcement is expected to be made today at Ganassi’s Cup headquarters in Concord, N.C.

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Franchitti is expected to drive in ARCA, Busch and Cup races in the final weeks of this season to prepare for the full-time Cup ride next year. That’s similar to the path taken a year ago by Juan Pablo Montoya, another former Indy 500 winner who now drives on the Cup circuit for Ganassi.

Franchitti, a 34-year-old Scot married to actress Ashley Judd, is leading a wave of open-wheel racers who are following Montoya and migrating to NASCAR’s top series. Sam Hornish Jr., a three-time IndyCar Series champ who won the Indy 500 last year, hopes to make his Cup debut Sunday by qualifying for the Talladega race. So does former Indy 500 winner Jacques Villeneuve.

james.peltz@latimes.com


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