Trick or treat, race fans.
Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway should be a real Halloween treat, as far as the points battle in the championship Chase is concerned.
Talladega is the "wild card, "the crapshoot" in the 10-race Chase. It's the one race the title contenders fear the most, since the unpredictable can happen here, including the "big one."
Right now, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick are feeling the most pressure heading to Talladega.
Hamlin's win at Martinsville last Sunday allowed him to shave 35 points off of Johnson's lead. The six points that currently separate Johnson from Hamlin is the closest margin between first and second place with four races to go in the seven-year history of the Chase. Harvick is just 62 points in back of Johnson.
"Right now I feel like we're in a great position going to Talladega," Hamlin said. "Nobody knows once we go [this] week. I know we've been extremely strong at Talladega for the last two to three years, so I'm pretty confident."
Hamlin has yet to win a race at Talladega, but has led at least one lap in each of his nine previous starts here. He finished fourth when the series last raced at Talladega in April.
Harvick will attempt to win his third consecutive restrictor-plate race. He won the spring race at Talladega and then followed up with a victory in the July event at Daytona.
In February, Harvick held the lead during a second green-white-checkered attempt in the Daytona 500. With less than two laps to go, Jamie McMurray got a push from Greg Biffle and then made a slingshot move past Harvick to take the lead. McMurray went on to win the Daytona 500, while Harvick settled for a seventh-place finish.
"For us, it's been a great restrictor-plate year," Harvick said. "We've been in contention to win them all, and for us, that makes us feel good. First of all, you need to have a car that is capable of being competitive and running up front. And then you have to play the chess match from there.
"I feel like we've done a good job in having a plan. At Talladega [in April], the plan played out to the last corner and then to the start/finish line."
And what a race it was at Talladega earlier this year.
The return of the rear spoiler, a larger restrictor plate and NASCAR easing up on its bump-drafting rules made for one of the all-time greatest races at Talladega. It featured 88 lead changes among 29 drivers, three green-white- checkered attempts, which led to an extra 32 miles, and a winning pass yards away from the finish line. Harvick nipped McMurray to the line by 0.01 seconds.
Johnson has avoided any major setbacks in the last three fall races at Talladega, finishing no worse than ninth.
"We've made it through there [the big crash] without any big trouble," Johnson said. "It really sucks to crash at five miles into the race or something. I think that's what we've done over the years is there's no need to push the envelope now if something weird went on. We could miss that. But at the end, you've got to pull [the belts] tight and drive through there and try to get the best finish you can."
However, Johnson has finished 30th and 31st in the last two spring races at Talladega. He won here for the first time in May 2006.
Talladega has received its share of criticism in previous years, particularly with the violent crashes there. Usually the mayhem at Talladega occurs during the final 20 to 30 laps. In some previous races, it's been shear madness on the last lap.
When the series raced at Talladega in April 2009, Carl Edwards walked away from a spectacular last-lap crash into the catch fence along the frontstretch.
One year ago, Mark Martin was caught up in a 13-car pileup just after the white flag was displayed. His car went airborne and then flipped on the track. Martin trailed Johnson by 118 points heading to Talladega, but after his 28th finish here, Martin fell 184 points behind.
"Points should not be awarded at Talladega," Edwards said. "In a fair competition, they shouldn't be because it's so random. It's just a treacherous race. Now, since there are points awarded, it adds a whole other level of stress to the race. You drive around, and if you're doing really well in the points, every lap your heart is pounding, and you're just trying to predict any wrecks that might happen and the best way to avoid them.
"I guess in a guy's position like myself, the reasons that I don't like it when I'm running well in the points are the same reasons that I look forward to it now."
Forty-six teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Amp Energy Juice 500.