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CUP: Everyone Looking For Mr. Right

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Even nice boys are looking to hook up at Talladega.

And not just in the infield late at night. It happens on the track, too.

Finding someone to hook up with on the last lap in all likelihood will decide who wins today’s Amp Energy Juice 500. It happened here in the spring, when Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray hooked up together and pulled away on the last lap, with Harvick making a desperate — and successful lunge to victory in the final 100 yards before the checkered flag.

It happened in the spring of 2009 as well, with Brad Keselowski scoring a stunning upset victory and Carl Edwards sailing into the catchfence after trying to pass him.

The fast way to race on the 2.66-mile superspeedway is to hook up with just one other driver and use the draft to pull away from the pack. And everyone knows it. Which means everyone will be trying to do it at the end of today’s race.

“Absolutely it is going to happen,” said Jeff Gordon, a six-time Talladega winner. “It is because these two-car drafts, the way we’ve been able to figure out how to hook up with one another and maximize what you can do with two cars pushing. It is pretty amazing what happens and how the r.p.m.s pick up and the speed. It is an incredible thing that has evolved in this sport and at this track.”

For some reason, the new-generation NASCAR Sprint Cup car, which has been used at superspeedways since 2008, works better in drafting pairs of two and not three or more.

“There’s something about when two cars hook up with each other, they can really gain speed,” said Kurt Busch. “The third car can’t keep up. It’s as if the air comes off the first car, clears that second car and lands straight on the third and slows it up. You’re going to see two-car breakaways. Whether you see it in the middle portion of the race or towards the end, there’s probably going to be two or three different groups of two-car tandems because that seems to be the magic number.”

So how do drivers choose drafting partners? Through a complex process of evaluations that go on all race long — start with teammates and friends and see who is working well with you, who is fast and who isn’t.

“You have your final pit stop and after that, you digest who you’ve been running with all day,” said Busch. “Who’s been good all day? Who can you trust? And who would you want to team up with on the frontside or backside of the two-car draft? It really happens after the last pit stop, but you’ve been taking notes all day.”

Trust and raw speed are key factors.

“It can be the best driver out there but if his car is not fast, you've got to pick somebody who is quick,” said Tony Stewart, one of the acknowledged masters of restrictor-plate racing. “But you can have the fastest guy out there but if he's somebody that you're nervous around, you might choose somebody else. So it's an evaluation that you go through the whole course of the race. You don't really make that decision necessarily before the race starts as much as you watch what guys are doing during the race and kind of evaluate it as you go.”

Asked if those alliances can change, Stewart laughed.

“Absolutely,” he said. “And without warning too.”

And the racers are as curious to see what will happen today as the race fans are.

“It’s going to really be interesting to see which two-car draft can win this race,” said Gordon. “Then what happens as you come to the line between those two cars, even that part is pretty darn exciting. I know we like to see big groups and packs here and five-wide at the line, but, for us as competitors, we’d prefer it to come down to two guys and it is still exciting. I think that is pretty cool.”

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.