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MONTE DUTTON


When I was new to the NASCAR beat (1993-2012), Talladega Superspeedway scared me.

A driver named Jimmy Horton sailed out of the entire track. Another, Stanley Smith, received critical injuries in the same crash. Late that night, at a truck stop near Atlanta, the gruesome orange wreck of Horton's car sat on a flatbed trailer at a nearby pump. It was dark and damp. The car looked ghostly.

Those early NASCAR days hardened me. Nothing is more gut-wrenching than having to write about tragedy. I was there when Kenny Irwin died after his throttle stuck in New Hampshire and there when Ernie Irvan nearly killed himself -- twice -- at Michigan.

There on that awful day when a famous driver died on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

The possibility of tragedy hung in the air back in those days. The feeling never goes away. Not completely.

Now stock car racing is much safer. Talladega doesn?t scare me as much, and I?m not there. The chill bumps don?t pop up as much from a comfortable, high-def distance.

The Alabama 500? I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if a last-second, cut-rate deal turns it into the Hobart's Body Shop Presented by Heat 'Em Up Welding Tools 500 by the weekend -- may not be as dangerous as it once was, but it's situated at a spot on the schedule that is figuratively deadly to the hopes of Chase contenders. Twelve will rev up their engines on Sunday afternoon, and only eight will advance to the third round that begins the following week.

Jimmie Johnson, who won at Charlotte, and Kevin Harvick, who prevailed in Kansas, are the only ones who left the Hollywood Casino 400 playing with house money. They can race, relax, ride, or, conversely, drive like lunatics knowing that their place in the Round of 8 is secure. All others are long-tailed cats at a rocking-chair convention.

Control is but a mirage. If Matt Kenseth, who is presently 29 points ahead of eighth place's present location, wads up his Toyota on the seventh lap, his crew will immediately start working calculators and turning wrenches.

Stranger things have happened and most likely at Talladega. Anyone can win. Almost anyone-- Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Bobby Hillin Jr. and many others over the years has. It's a wild card, a lottery ticket, a shot in the dark and a roll of the dice, all wound into one.

Martin Truex Jr. won two of the first three races in the Chase. That was the first segment. It no longer matters. What did he say after he climbed out of his car in Kansas?

"We've just got to go to Talladega and hope that nothing crazy happens."

Oh, something crazy will happen. Several times. Truex just hopes it doesn't happen to him.