TALLADEGA, Ala. - Sprint Cup cars will run 500 miles Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. The real question, though, is how many miles they will race.
Travis Kvapil will start from the pole after turning a lap at 187.364 mph in Saturday's qualifying at this 2.66-mile track. None of the 12 drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff qualified better than 12th. Casey Mears will start second with Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammates Aric Almirola, Regan Smith and Paul Menard lined up third through fifth.
But aside from Sam Hornish Jr. and Patrick Carpentier, who didn't make the 43-car field based on their speed, what happened Saturday will make very little difference Sunday. The running order in a restrictor-plate race, especially at Talladega, shuffles so freely that starting position here is just a number.
The trick is to go 500 miles faster than anyone else. But to be in contention as a Talladega race builds toward its climax, each driver knows he first must make it through 450 miles or so without getting into one of the big wrecks this track is known for.
Strategies for trying to accomplish that vary. A year ago, the lead pack lined up and rode primarily in single-file formation for nearly half the race as they adjusted to a then-new pavement. And for the past several years, at least some would-be contenders have elected to fall back and stay at the rear of the pack until the late stages of the race, hoping that would allow them to miss the big wreck and knowing they'd still have time to get up into the mix when it came time to race to the finish.
"I can't do that," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who despite qualifying 15th fastest on Saturday must start at the rear of the field Sunday after changing engines Friday.
"We have a lot of fans looking forward to us getting up toward the front. ...I think that is the safest place to be. It is the most exciting place to be. It is where all the action is."
But if you're Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards or Greg Biffle, the three drivers who've pulled away a bit from the rest of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field in the 10-race playoff's first three races, you have to think about whether letting others carry that "action" for a while might be the smart move.
"Not to be disrespectful of the fans, but the only thing I'm worried about is collecting points and I don't care how I do it or how I get there," said Johnson, who qualified 20th. "We're going to keep a close eye on that and try to run in the area where it's the safest."
But Johnson, who leads Edwards by 10 points and Biffle by 30 in the standings, said the problem is finding that safe place.
"What we found last time, is there were more guys hanging back than were up front," he said. "So actually up front was safer than being in the back. That's what we have to monitor inside the car. The goal is to not be in the eye of the storm, and look at who is running in the pack and you decide if that's the crowd you want to run with. ...I just take it as it comes. If you're in a position that's uncomfortable or you see something going on, you need to get yourself out of that position."
Edwards, who qualified 12th fastest on Saturday, said he will try to be smart, too.
"At times I've thought, 'Man, it kind of takes something away from the racing,' but really it's just another part of the strategy," he said. "You've got to do what you can to be there at the end. ...And even if you're holding back for the first 90 percent of the race, that last 10 percent is what fills these seats."
Biffle, who starts 22nd, said he will try to work his way to the front at some point early in the race just to get a feel for how his No. 16 Ford is working in the draft. But he understands the perils of trying to do too much of that.
"It's like riding a snowmobile along the bottom of an avalanche to see how courageous you're going to be before it comes down on you," Biffle said. "Everybody wants to sit in the bleachers and watch that, but not a lot of people want to get out and participate in it. ...You have to make that decision."
Kyle Busch, looking to halt a three-race slide that has carried him from first when the Chase started to 12th coming into Sunday, starts 37th. Don't look for him to be riding around at the back.
"I've tried," he said, "and about the longest I can stay back there is about 15 laps, and I'm bored to death."
Besides, Busch said, he's not sure there is a Talladega strategy to rely on.
"If you say you're going to stay on the bottom the whole time, that ain't going to work," he said. "If you say you're going to stay on the top the whole time, that's not going to work.
"You can try to go and ride in the back, but you've got to have enough patience and enough self-determination to be back there the whole time. It always changes all around. ...You never know what's going to happen."
Which, of course, is what makes it Talladega.