By JENNA FRYER-The Associated Press
TALLADEGA, Ala. – Ride or race was the question NASCAR’s title contenders are considering as they prepare for Talladega Superspeedway.
The fourth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup could be the one that shuffles the 12-driver championship field.
The use of restrictor plates bunches the field, and the unpredictability of drafting and relying on partners usually creates a chaotic race that can end a drivers’ title hopes.
So when qualifying ended Saturday, and Kasey Kahne sat on the pole for the first time at a plate race, drivers began discussing in earnest how they will attack the 500-mile event.
“We just really need to race and race hard,” he said. “We’re a long ways back right now, and if we can’t make up points at a track like this, we probably aren’t going to make them up.”
Kahne’s lap of 191.455 mph bettered Ryan Newman’s 191.145, putting a pair of Chevrolets on the front row for Sunday’s race.
Asked what it meant for Kahne’s race, he didn’t offer many details.
“It means I’m going to start first, that’s it,” Kahne said. “I’ll try to lead that first lap. If we’re up there, we’ll try to stay up there.”
That’s the big debate among drivers who differ on strategy for Talladega. Some may ride around in the back of the field waiting to make a late charge in an effort to avoid potential dicey situations, but some want to be aggressive and be out front as much as possible.
Kahne, who is sixth in the standings and trails leader Brad Keselowski by 32 points, insists he’ll race.
So will two-time defending race winner Clint Bowyer, who has had Talladega circled as the track that can most help his championship chances. He’s fourth in the standings and has talked all week about gaining some big ground today.
Then he surprised himself with a third-place qualifying run that forced him to reconsider his race strategy.
“I am blown away, shocked, that we were top three,” Bowyer said.
“I thought, definitely going into today, my whole plan for the weekend was we were going to qualify poorly and ride around in the back. Well, we’re in the front, and I’m going to try to stay there.”
Three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart qualified fourth and was followed by Greg Biffle as Chase drivers took four of the top five starting sports.
Jeff Gordon was fourth, and was followed by Carl Edwards, Trevor Bayne, Martin Truex Jr. and Sam Hornish Jr.
Truex , Bowyer’s teammate at Michael Waltrip Racing, said he’s going to race on Sunday.
“I’ve been crashed here more than not, so we’re going to go out there and race,” he said. “We’re going to have fun and we’re going to try to stay up front and lead some laps and hopefully be around at the end. I’ve crashed here going for the lead and I’ve been crashed here trying to ride around in the back. So there’s no safe place.”
Michael Waltrip was 11th and followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., as two drivers who once dominated restrictor-plate races will start side-by-side on Sunday.
In all, Chase drivers took six of the top-10 starting spots. The other half of the Chase field is spread out all the way down to 23rd, which is where Denny Hamlin will go off on Sunday.
Matt Kenseth was 15th, Jimmie Johnson 17th, Kevin Harvick 21st and leader Keselowski 22nd.
But Keselowski, who won at Talladega in the spring by leading the last lap, wasn’t worried about his starting position.
“I think we’ve proven that the only lap that matters is the last one,” Keselowski said. “Things happen so late in the race that even the best strategy can get thrown out the window. I just want to be there with five laps to go.”
Johnson, who has failed to finish the three previous plate races this season, said his strategy is simple.
“Don’t crash,” he said. “Whatever increases my chances of not crashing. There really isn’t a rhyme or reason to that.”
Bowyer cautioned that too much strategy can hurt a driver, and the best plan is to just go with the flow of the race and try to hold on until the end.
“The biggest thing you don’t want to do is get caught up in a wreck early,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what happens, what your strategy is, if you qualify up front you need to stay up front.
“Even if you’re up front and you find yourself shuffled back in the pack, get out of there. Get to the back. Especially these guys who are racing for a championship.
“There’s a tremendous amount of guys on different strategies all across the board. So many different agendas out there. Us Chase guys, I would say, got to play it relatively safe. If you don’t, you get caught up in a wreck before halfway.”