Chase Viewer's Guide: Round 4

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Steve Byrnes

Steve Byrnes is a host and reporter for NASCAR on FOX. A broadcast veteran, he has covered racing for more than 20 years. Follow him on Twitter.

There's a lot of apprehension and fear of the unknown for drivers this weekend, even though they tested the Car of Tomorrow at Talladega Superspeedway last month. It's difficult for the drivers to see behind them with the wing on the back, and it's difficult to see the driver in front of them if that driver should wave. For example, it'll be hard to see the old hand signal which means, "Hey, I'm slowing down. I'm headed to the pits." On The Chase is On (Thursdays, 8 p.m. ET on SPEED), Carl Edwards and I laughed about the very nature of race car drivers. It's so difficult for them to be patient at Talladega. It's almost like they can't trust themselves. They're going so fast that they get lulled into a false sense of security, so it's very hard not to try something over 188 laps.

Who to Watch

When we look at the history of the Talladega Superspeedway, we almost have to discount the previous records because this is the debut of the Car of Tomorrow. Quite frankly, we don't know what's going to happen.

  • Tony Stewart: Having written that "Who to Watch" introduction, when you finish second six times at one racetrack — like Stewart has — he has to be factored into the equation.
  • Jeff Gordon: A five-time winner at Talladega — tied for second with Dale Earnhardt Jr. all-time — Gordon is one of those driver who has an advantage at this track, regardless of what kind of a car is being driven. All of these Cars of Tomorrow are fairly identical, but as Larry McReynolds says, the cream always rises to the top.
  • Carl Edwards: The Roush Fenway Racing COT program has come a long way since the beginning of the season. Edwards has a lot of confidence in what they've got, and he really thinks they're going to be good down there.
  • Casey Mears: Through the years, Talladega has had its share of unexpected winners. That could happen again this weekend with a dark horse like Mears. You wouldn't think of him as a superspeedway specialist, but he could be a factor with Hendrick horsepower.
  • Kurt Busch: Busch is 177 points back in ninth place in the championship standings. He's been good, but he and his team just haven't put the finishes together in the Chase. I think he's going to be a factor.
  • Clint Bowyer: While it hasn't been a great track for Bowyer, he's been fairly impressive over the last three races, so his momentum should do nothing but continue.
  • What to Watch

  • The great unknown: Since it's the first COT race at Talladega, the drivers may be so careful that they're going to give everybody room. It could be a caution-free race. But Matt Kenseth isn't sure yet how this car will react in a pack of traffic. They don't know if they're going to be able to catch back up to the draft or stay in the lead pack draft the whole time. There are a lot of unknowns, but the good thing is the track is really smooth after being repaved last year and it's not as bumpy as Daytona. It provides a little more of a comfort factor. The real concern is how close can you run to the guy in front of you and next to you. Those factors have been knowns in the past, but they don't know right now.
  • Slam-drafting: In the past, if a driver hit a guy from behind, it could lift his rear wheels off the ground because the nose was slanted down. Now, the noses are pretty much flat so when they hit a car in front of them, it's a square shot. If you're on the straightaways, you're just going to push him, not get him to turn around. That kind of thinking makes me nervous. Once you've gained a little confidence in slam-drafting on the straightaway, it's easier to try to hit a guy square in the corners. I just hope discretion is the better part of racing. Another concern is the rear bumpers are soft so there might be too much bump-drafting because the front ends are nice and stiff.
  • Engines make a difference: Another key is the engine. Edwards said horsepower means more than ever because the cars are so similar. Bill Davis Racing's Tommy Baldwin said the team went to the wind tunnel with their superspeedway car and didn't improve downforce. With the templates the way they are now, there's not a whole lot of room to work on the body, so engines will be an important differentiator.
  • Stay in front or hang in back?: On The Chase Is On, we interviewed a bunch of drivers, and there are two schools of thought. Try to stay up in the lead pack to avoid the potential "Big One" or go to the back and let the wreck — if it does happen — unfold in front of you so you can avoid it. Edwards said his sponsors want to see him run up front so if he qualifies up front, he's going to run there. If he doesn't, he's going to try to be patient and pick his spots.
  • Pit Perspective

    Everybody respects Jacques Villeneuve's talent and what he's accomplished. That's not in question. The question is why wouldn't he pick a place like Richmond, Martinsville or Atlanta to attempt his Cup debut. There's a lot of apprehension among the drivers at a track where you have to trust the guys next to you, in front of you and behind you. You have to know what they are going to do. There's just little to no confidence in knowing he'll be able to stay there. For the most part, the Cup regulars know each other's tendencies. That's where the trepidation comes in. Nobody is insulting the man's record, which speaks for itself. It's just why debut with white-knuckle racing at Talladega? The only reason that I can pin it on is getting him superspeedway experience for the Daytona 500. Watching another former open wheel driver, Dario Franchitti, announce he's coming into the Sprint Cup Series, the sport has acquired quite a gentleman with a lot of integrity. It's the biggest challenge of his career, and that's why he's doing it. He was very humble and extremely well-spoken, and it speaks to where our sport is. Not that we don't hit a bump in the road every now and then, but it speaks to where people want to be. Franchitti is 34 years old, but he wants to race in NASCAR, just like a few other Indy 500 winners like Villeneuve, Juan Pablo Montoya and Sam Hornish Jr.

    Finish Line

    Be there at the end. Tires shouldn't be part of the equation. They're pretty hard here. The track is very smooth. David Reutimann had a great run in the spring, and he lost an engine and a certain top-10 finish late in the race. If you can be in the lead pack with 10 to go, you've got a shot to win. Look at what Kevin Harvick did on the last lap of the Daytona 500. He came off of Turn 2 and wasn't really a factor all day. Then, all of the sudden, he won the race. That's even truer at Talladega because handling isn't as important as it is at Daytona. Talladega is about brute horsepower and pinning the gas pedal to the mat. Or like Sterling Marlin likes to say, "Let it eat."

    Speed Mail Steve

    Dale Jr.'s good cause

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. is trying to win a race and prepare for a brand-new endeavor next year. At a time of year when drivers and in the middle of the longest stretch of racing of the season, I'm impressed that he's going to devote time to raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation on Tuesday Oct. 23 in Charlotte with Dale Jr.'s Celebrity Sports Auction. Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme is going to be there as well, and he's in the middle of his season. This particular fundraiser is very important to Dale Jr. because his father was very involved in the Make-A-Wish Foundation. In a larger sense, I'm really impressed with how drivers are starting foundations. Kyle Petty is certainly the most well-known with the Victory Junction Gang Camp, but so many drivers are starting foundations that benefit so many different efforts and worthy causes. I admire them for giving their time. Click here for more information about the Dale Jr.'s Celebrity Sports Auction. You can purchase tickets for the event through Wednesday, Oct. 17.

    FOX football focus

  • Detroit Lions at Washington Redskins, 1 p.m. ET on FOX): The Lions have come a long way. I was really surprised that they beat the Bears the way they did last week, scoring 34 fourth-quarter points. The Redskins had the week off to get rested. I'm going to take the Redskins at FedEx Field.
  • Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints, 1 p.m. ET on FOX): The Panthers were horrendous against Tampa Bay last week. There was a players-only meeting this week and just a lot of unrest. You've got two desperate teams here, and New Orleans is going to get their offense on track so I'm going to have to give the edge to the Saints.

  • NASCAR on FOX and SPEED host and reporter Steve Byrnes has covered racing for more than 20 years.

    Tagged: Kyle Petty, Dario Franchitti, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Sterling Marlin, Kevin Harvick, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Reutimann, Carl Edwards, Jacques Villeneuve

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