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Looking for a break in Charlotte

Reminder: Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup race is at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Not Talladega. Charlotte.

"So, what are you saying?" crew chief Gil Martin said Friday afternoon in the Charlotte garage, laughing. "Are you saying people are bringing Talladega up a little bit?"

Yes, that's exactly what we're saying. While everyone still in the Chase hunt says they are 100-percent focused on the task at hand at Charlotte this weekend (coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET, ABC), that's not 100-percent honest. Charlotte is merely the first part of a treacherous three-act play that begins on NASCAR's home track, moves south to the restrictor plate-choked madness of Talladega Superspeedway, and then to the near-equally unpredictable bullring of Martinsville Speedway.

"You can't win the championship over the next three weeks," points leader Matt Kenseth said on Friday. "But I think you can sure lose it."

All too aware of that possibility is the growing pack of racers trying to reel Kenseth in. In fact, they're banking on it. Since the 10-race Chase started five weeks ago, Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, trailing by a scant three points, have threatened to break away from the points pack.

But a pair of somewhat human stumbles at Kansas, paired with a win by Kevin Harvick and a third-place finish by Jeff Gordon, has fueled new hope back in the pack. Especially with Gordon and Harvick starting Saturday night's race on the front row and their career records at Talladega.

Now those hoping to run down the Big Two are unapologetically pinning a large portion of their hopes on the unpredictability of "The Big One" and, to a lesser extent, the dangers of an old fashioned Martinsville demolition derby.

"I think for us we controlled the things that we could control last week and that was scoring max points," Harvick said of his Kansas win. "You have to have some luck on your side to be around at [the season finale at] Homestead. Hopefully you catch some of those breaks, whether it be at Talladega or Martinsville and hopefully you can counter-balance that with some breaks of your own."

In other words, hope that the two guys out front get caught up in one or both of those potential messes and you don't.

"I remember last year the 14 car was upside down, tumbling across cars, so it can change, points can change in a hurry and that's the one racetrack that we all know can go one way or the other in a hurry," said Greg Biffle, sixth in the championship standings, 44 points -- essentially a race -- behind Kenseth. "A lot of guys got their fingers crossed that maybe a little bit of a break in the points there, but certainly you can't count on anything happening."

No, but one can hope. They are. And yes, those two guys being chased know that.

"I do feel good about our chances. Post-Talladega, depending on how things play out there, we'll see where we stand," said Johnson when asked to assess his shot at a sixth Cup. "I know if we keep this pace up, we'll definitely be a contender come Homestead. The big question is just Talladega."

But before Talladega and Martinsville, yes, there is Charlotte.

When talking to some veteran crew chiefs and drivers during Thursday and Friday's practice sessions, you might have thought they were talking about Talladega. They wondered aloud about practicing in the daylight when the race is at night. They speculated on the lingering effect of the still-new Gen-6 racecar. And, a full seven years after Charlotte Motor Speedway was repaved, they talked about the blacktop-turned-curveball as if it had been laid down just last week.

It would be inaccurate to compare Charlotte's '06 surface to Kansas' one-year old makeover, which is still catching blame for what was sometimes a sloppy, caution-punctuated race.

But clearly what once worked chassis-wise no longer does. Add in the cool temperatures of a long, 500-mile mid-October night -- forecast to begin in the 70s and dip into the high 50s -- and the capacity for unpredictability certainly exists.

Johnson won five of the six races leading into the repave. Since then he's won once in 15 tries, including a sudden snap-to-the-right late-race crash in 2011 that essentially ended his consecutive championships streak at five.

Over those 15 post-paving races, there have been 11 different winners. That may not be Talladega-type madness, but it could be just enough of a roulette wheel to provide a pre-Talladega points scramble.

"At this point, it's just going all out, giving it everything we have, we're not really thinking about points," said Gordon. "We're trying to win races and get the best finishes that we can."

But a little help would be nice.