Dustin Off the Next Race: Amp Energy 500 at Talladega

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Dustin Off the Next Race:  Amp Energy 500 at Talladega
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It is time for NASCAR to go up against its biggest foe. This track is 2.66 miles in length, corners banked at a staggering 33 degrees, and cars separated by just mere inches.

The track is Talladega. Sunday afternoon, 43 cars will tempt their fate when they take the green flag in the Amp Energy 500.

So many factors come into play at this track. Right away, the cars will have a smaller restrictor plate, which will reduce the speeds. But that also means it will tighten up the packs and could lead to some strategy to get up front.

Then, throw in the "out of bounds" rule. In the spring, Brad Keselowski knew full well what the penalty would be for going below the double-yellow line. It cost Regan Smith a win in 2008, and he was not going to let that happen again.

It came at a cost, as Carl Edwards went sailing into the catch fence, destroying the race car and injuring some fans.

That fence has been moved up, but the risks are still evident and everyone will be on edge.

The risks are just as big as the reward. Following Sunday's race, just three races will be left to decide a champion. The Chase could look very different coming out of Talladega than it did going in.

With all these factors in mind, it is time to dust off my predictions for the teams to watch out for when the green flag flies.


FAVORITES

JEFF GORDON

In what seems to be a forgotten factor at Talladega, Gordon has the most wins among active drivers with six. He also won the first restrictor plate race in the new car at this track two years ago.

This was also the track that he surpassed Dale Earnhardt in victories. He is certainly a driver that one must consider for victory.

In the spring, Gordon did not get the opportunity to show how good his car could have been. Just seven laps into the race, the "Big One" occurred and took his DuPont/Pepsi Challenger car out of contention.

Gordon is looking for a bit of redemption, and could make a move ahead in the points if he can survive Sunday's events. The No. 24 team has come close to victory in the Chase, maybe Sunday will be that breakthrough.


TONY STEWART

The man they call "Smoke" got his final win for Joe Gibbs racing last season at this track amid controversy.

At the same time, Stewart runs very consistent in Talladega. Plus, he has more drafting partners this year, considering his team is backed with Hendrick power and chassis.

I would not count the No. 14 out of this race by a long shot. He will be out front when it matters most. The Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet is on my watch list.


DALE EARNHARDT, JR.

That is not a typo, and I'm not putting his name here to humor everyone. Face it, Talladega is Earnhardt country. When Talladega comes up on the schedule, there is no way that you cannot put Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a favorite to win.

He is second to Gordon on the active wins list with five, and his legendary father won here ten times, including his final victory.

Earnhardt Jr. has gone through every form of bad luck a driver and his team could endure for one season. Broken parts, blown engines, ill-handling cars, and accidents have been the story of the 2009 campaign.

But, when the restrictor plates go on the cars and he straps into the No. 88 Chevrolet, he becomes a major contender. In the spring, he finished second, his highest finish of the season. This team is hungry, and the followers in "Junior Nation" are waiting for their driver to make it into that win column.

It's Talladega, he's an Earnhardt, and he's my pick for this race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. CAN win the Amp Energy 500.


SLEEPERS

CARL EDWARDS

Before he ended up in the catch fence and running across the finish line, Carl Edwards ran a very smart race in April. Despite slight damage to his car from an earlier accident, he was patient and worked his way to the front.

You wouldn't have considered him to be a contender when the race started. However, when half the field got eliminated early, new faces emerged.

Edwards may not come back with the same car, but he will come back as someone who could surprise everyone.

Keep your eyes on the No. 99.


BRAD KESELOWSKI

Oh yes, I cannot forget about the young man who got his first win at this track. In a car that was leased from Hendrick Motorsports, Keselowski stunned the NASCAR world by winning the Aaron's 499.

Let's not forget one thing, this is a driver who, for his entire Nationwide Series career, has raced for Earnhardt Jr. and JR Motorsports. There is no better driver right now to learn how to race at a restrictor plate track.

But Keselowski won the race because he was smart, and did not break the rules. Keselowski was not going to go below the yellow line, which would have cost him the chance at victory. Although it meant sacrificing Edwards' and Ryan Newman's chances at a good finish, he was not crossing the line.

He returns to the same track trying to do something that has not been done since 2007—that is, sweep Talladega. He will be back in the No. 09 James Finch Chevrolet, and you can bet the drivers know he can pull off the upset again.


At this track, it is not uncommon to expect the unexpected. What is expected is that each driver will have his foot on the gas, hoping to escape without catastrophe.

Sunday's Amp Energy 500 will be on ABC starting at noon ET with NASCAR Countdown .

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