It's only fitting Jeff Gordon has bypassed Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead in NASCAR's race to the championship.

After all, the series is headed to Talladega Superspeedway for the third round of NASCAR's 10-race playoff system, and it was Gordon who ended Earnhardt's dominance on restrictor-plate tracks.

Gordon won at Talladega in April, nipping Earnhardt in a slightly controversial race. Earnhardt was attempting to pass for the lead with three laps left when an accident occurred behind them, freezing the field and preventing the two from racing to the finish.

Earnhardt then failed to redeem himself at Daytona in July, finishing third as he watched Gordon sail to another restrictor-plate victory.

Gordon now goes to Talladega with the points lead in the battle for the Nextel Cup championship, two consecutive restrictor-plate victories and a chance to match a record. A win Sunday at Talladega would tie Gordon with the late Dale Earnhardt as the two drivers to win three plate races in one season.

But Gordon isn't concerned with chasing history. He's more focused on avoiding the trademark multicar Talladega crashes. If he -- or any other chase contender -- gets caught in one, their title hopes will certainly be over.

"The best way to avoid the big wreck is to be out front or near the lead," Gordon said. "Ideally, I'd like to be in the lead pack running single file with everyone else battling two and three-wide behind me.

"But that rarely happens because there are 42 other drivers with the same goal, and that's to win."

The list of viable chase contenders has been whittled to six.

Gordon holds a one-point lead over Kurt Busch, and Earnhardt Jr. is in third place. Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin are tied for fourth, putting Elliott Sadler in sixth.

But reigning series champion Matt Kenseth plummeted to seventh, and more or less saw his hopes at repeating his title destroyed when he wrecked while trying to enter the pits Sunday in Dover, Del.

He ended up 32nd after his Roush Racing crew frantically made enough repairs to get his Ford back on the track.

Ryan Newman won Sunday in Dover, but failed to make up much ground and is eighth in the standings.

Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield had the same fate as Newman. Both had solid runs last weekend, but are still stuck in ninth and 10th, desperately trying to crawl closer to the lead.

Talladega is the one race that radically can jumble the standings.

Because of the constant three- and four-wide racing in huge packs at speeds above 190 mph, "the big one" -- the almost inevitable multicar wreck -- is always looming.

"Talladega could be the wild card in the chase," Martin said. "You really can't control what goes on there, and our goal is to not wreck, avoid the 'big one' and try to get a high finish."

Earnhardt, who won four consecutive races at Talladega until two straight second-place finishes, knows how to avoid the accidents: "Just stay out front all day."

And if Earnhardt is going to make a strong push to reclaim the points lead, Talladega would be the track to do it at.

"Talladega is so much fun," he said. "I can't think of many things more fun than running three-wide at Talladega. You're using every bit of your peripheral vision, while trying to watch the guys behind you in the mirror and not running into the guy in front of you."

Fun for some, but a nightmare to others.

Kenseth, for one, has never been great at the Alabama track, scoring just three top 10s in nine starts.

And Newman has never pretended to enjoy racing at Talladega.

"I'd rather not have it on the schedule, period," he said. "It's part of what NASCAR decided to make one of the final 10 and also decided to make it part of the schedule. We'll just take it for what it's worth."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has won four consecutive races at Talladega, knows how to avoid the accidents: "Just stay out front all day."