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NASCAR tries to avoid another Talladega disaster
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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Michael Waltrip pulled up to the back of Jimmie Johnson's car, settled in on his bumper and shoved him all the way around Talladega Superspeedway as the two drivers worked on a strategy for NASCAR's fastest race track.

"We got hooked up and started flying," said Johnson.

Only problem? NASCAR doesn't want to see such aggressive drafting anymore, and when Waltrip didn't heed a warning to back off a bit, he was yanked out of the final practice session leading into Sunday's race.

It was NASCAR's way of sending a message to the drivers: They can police themselves or NASCAR will do it for them.

It's all part of a concerted effort to avoid a repeat of the spectacular last-lap accidents that marred the last two restrictor plate races this season. Carl Edwards went airborne into the Talladega safety fence on the final lap of April's race, and Kyle Busch sailed hard into an outside wall at Daytona in July.

In Edwards' accident, the frontstretch fence bowed, but held, and flying debris injured seven fans in the grandstands. After crossing the finish line on foot, Edwards issued a dire warning about the racing conditions.

"We'll race like this until we kill somebody," Edwards said, "then (NASCAR) will change it."

NASCAR listened, and precautions have been taken headed into Sunday's race.

Track operator International Speedway Corp. has raised the fencing to 22 feet from 14 feet at the recommendation of an outside engineering firm, and NASCAR reduced the size of the holes in the restrictor-plates, which are used to throttle back the horsepower at the two biggest tracks on the circuit.

The smaller holes are intended to cut anywhere from 12 to 15 horsepower and slow the cars just a tick.

Whether that's enough to eliminate "The Big One" — the massive accidents that these races are generally remembered for — remains to be seen. But drivers seemed skeptical and worried the new plates are actually going to create more mayhem than usual.

"I don't want to go flipping across the finish line," Dale Earnhardt Jr., a five-time Talladega winner, recently said. "The measures of raising the fences are good, but cars go through them fences, parts go through them. And it seems like the smaller the plate gets, the more we wreck, in my opinion.

"The smaller you make the plate, the more on top of each other we race and the more we're going to wreck. Every time that plate gets smaller, it gets more dangerous."

That's the predicament NASCAR finds itself in as the series heads into what is traditionally one of the most exciting races of the year. The action is intense for the entire 500 miles, as cars jockey for position at speeds of almost 200 mph.

Because of the restricted horsepower, the traffic is typically one massive pack of cars running door-to-door and bumper-to-bumper in three- and four-wide lanes. Drivers hook onto each other's bumpers to draft their way around the speedway, and one small wiggle can trigger a wicked wreck.

NASCAR thinks the drivers are capable of preventing the multicar accidents, if they'd just back off and not be so aggressive. But even after warning drivers before Friday practice that they weren't going to allow bump-drafting, almost everyone did it during two lively sessions.

"Every time, it evolves because the drivers continue to push what the car is capable of and what the drivers are capable of," said six-time Talladega winner Jeff Gordon. "I thought there were no-bump zones or something like that, but the reason why that's happening is because NASCAR is allowing the cars to push one another through the corners.

"Until they crack down on that, you're going to see it come down to two guys locking up together and pushing one another and then trying to figure out how to decide it among themselves."

That's what happened in the last two races. Edwards was running in a two-car breakaway with Brad Keselowski when he tried to block Keselowski's attempt at a race-winning pass. Contact between the two cars initiated his flight into the fence, and the scene was nearly repeated at Daytona in July when Busch and Tony Stewart battled for the win.

No amount of warnings will change that, either. With a win up for grabs, every driver is going to do anything possible to get to the finish line first.

And not everyone is convinced that NASCAR should intervene.       

"Blocking has always been an issue," Ryan Newman said. "I think it was Richard Petty who said when they created the second car, the potential for racing started and as soon as racing started there was a potential for blocking.

"Blocking is a part of this sport. It's frowned upon by most drivers, but there are a few drivers that try to take advantage of the situation. I think the drivers are fully capable of managing their situations, and having NASCAR let us manage those situations is important."

Rain washes out qualifying at Talladega

Jimmie Johnson last started from the pole at Talladega Superspeedway in 2002, as the points leader, lined up next to Mark Martin.

He didn't even make it to the first lap.

In a bizarre prerace mishap as the drivers were warming up their tires, a problem with Martin's steering box caused him to run into Johnson. The two cars skidded into the infield grass, Johnson suffered damage to the front of his Chevrolet, and had dropped to the back of the field when the race began.

"Did you bring that same steering box back?" Jeff Gordon asked Martin on Saturday after rain washed out qualifying at Talladega.

The inclement weather led NASCAR to cancel the qualifying session and set the field for Sunday's race on points — which put Johnson and Martin side-by-side again, with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon right behind them in the second row.

Gordon was only joking when he hinted at potential sabotage, but both he and Martin know they need something catastrophic to happen to Johnson on Sunday for either to have a chance of challenging him for the Sprint Cup title.

The three-time defending series champion has a commanding points lead with only four races remaining in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, with Talladega as the last remaining obstacle in his path toward a record fourth consecutive title.

The fastest track in NASCAR is the worst of the 10 Chase venues for Johnson, who has one victory but an overall average finish of just 17.7 at Talladega. Because of the unpredictability of restrictor-plate racing, the unknowns facing him on Sunday have left Johnson admittedly struggling to sleep the past few days.

"Falling asleep lately has been difficult, I have to admit," Johnson said. "The brain wonders and thinks about a lot of different things. Especially when I come to a track like this."

The rain means all 12 Chase drivers will start at the front of the field, exactly where they want to be.

"The safest place really is leading," Johnson said.

Not always, as Johnson learned in 2002 when Martin had his fluke incident. It was Johnson who reminded him of it this weekend.

"I'm still embarrassed about that," Martin said. "That's a long way in the rearview mirror. Why don't we look forward here instead of back? Not my proudest weekend."

Johnson, who had taken over the points lead a week earlier, wound up 37th that day and dropped to third in the standings, his title hopes over.

"I remember thinking what the hell just happened?" Johnson recalled.

It's those kinds of flukes he'll try to avoid Sunday, but he's also trying not to overanalyze the potential for disaster.

"You could worry yourself to death on how things will turn out here," he said. "All it's going to do is shorten your fuse, potentially put the team on edge to where you make bad decisions, and we don't need that."