For the 10 drivers competing in NASCAR's new 10-race playoff, there will be one key goal today in Talladega: staying out of trouble.

"I think everybody says this race is pivotal because there's usually a big wreck here," said Jeff Gordon, who enters the EA Sports 500 -- the third race of the title chase -- as the Nextel Cup leader by one point over Kurt Busch.

"A big wreck here can change the chances for the guys who get caught up in it," Gordon added. "And it might increase the chances for the guys who get through it."

Even Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose last five starts on Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway's 2.66-mile oval have resulted in four victories and a second-place finish to Gordon in April, worries about getting caught up in "The Big One" here.

"If a guy's got a six-shooter, there's only so many you can dodge," said Earnhardt, just 18 points behind Gordon in third. "We've missed a lot of wrecks here. Two years in a row we were put to the rear after qualifying and drove through two big ol' crashes.

"I don't want to have to deal with that this weekend. The action that causes those big ones seems to start anywhere from eighth on back, so I'll just try to stay up front in the top five."

At least at the start of the 500-mile event, most of the contenders will be up front, with Gordon starting fifth in the 43-car lineup, followed by Elliott Sadler, Matt Kenseth, Busch, Jeremy Mayfield and Earnhardt, all among the top 10 in points.

The other contenders will have to work their way to the front, with Jimmie Johnson starting 16th, Mark Martin 17th, Ryan Newman 19th and Tony Stewart 30th.

What sets Talladega apart from the other nine races in the Chase for the Nextel Cup is the use of carburetor restrictor plates to keep the cars under 200 mph on the fast, banked track.

NASCAR requires the horsepower-sapping plates only for races at Talladega and Daytona, its two longest and fastest ovals. The result at those tracks is lap after lap of two- and three-wide racing by huge packs of cars, leaving everyone vulnerable to a mechanical failure or the slightest miscalculation by a driver.

"There are four points-paying races at these type of tracks and it's something you have to learn to do," Busch said, shrugging.

With the cars always running so close at this track, though, it does put a premium on finding drafting partners who won't let you down.

"It takes time to develop the rapport with the other drivers and to be able to understand the moves on when your lane is going to go and when you can make a pass, or when you have to just stand on the brakes," Busch noted.

"There's a certain attitude that you have to have and a mind-set to draft," said Johnson, fourth in the standings, just 39 points behind Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. "You can't avoid something if it happens around you.

"I'd say until the first pit stop or so, you're worried about where you're at on the track and how guys are racing. But, after that, it seems that all reality and common sense goes out the window."

* IRL: Helio Castroneves will start on the pole today for the third consecutive race, and second year in a row at California Speedway in Fontana. The two-time Indianapolis 500 champion turned in a lap of 217.47 mph yesterday in qualifying for the Toyota 400.

Scott Dixon will start in the No. 2 spot in the Indy Race League event after logging a lap of 216.30 mph. Two-time defending champion Sam Hornish was third fastest, with a lap of 216.06.

Darren Manning escaped serious injury when his car spun out and rammed into a SAFER barrier in the second turn during his second qualifying lap.