Down to Nextel Cup's final 10-race dash-for-the-really-big-cash, here's what this motorsports writer thinks the final standings will look like -- including a coincident thought or two -- when the tire marbles settle for the last time at the Nov. 19 Homestead-Miami Speedway's Ford 400.
1 -- Mark Martin. Hardly anyone this year seems to be waxing romantic about the possibility of this grizzled veteran finally bagging a Cup. It was as if everyone wasn't surprised to see him cut a top-10 but alternately don't expect him to reach No. 1.
To some, Martin's late-season performance this year has suggested he can't mount a charge. To me it suggests he merely was recharging with a little nap.
2 -- Jimmie Johnson. Johnson may well be poised to fill Martin's role as "the best driver to have not won a championship" -- until his last Cup season, that is.
An accessible, genuinely nice guy with a most excellent crew chief in Chad Knaus (about whom this reporter was writing feature stories when he was at Melling), there just seems to be something that bites Johnson in the rear and it's gonna happen again this year.
3 -- Matt Kenseth. With only two Roush Racing cars in this year's Chase -- compared to 2005 and 2004's four and three cars, respectively -- my main wonder is focused on Roush Racing's current place in the cycle of life -- the one that's brought renewed vigor to Richard Childress Racing. Is it likewise swinging against the future-of-Roush-Racing boys, starting now?
4 -- Jeff Gordon. The best driver of his generation until an older Tony Stewart (by 2 ½-months) nabbed the subjective title by racing hard elsewhere.
As Stewart has done a number of times, Gordon will in four months take on his first Rolex 24 at Daytona with Wayne Taylor's SunTrust Racing - probably falling just minutes short of an overall victory, only to go on to claim his fifth Nextel Cup championship in 2007.
5 -- Kyle Busch. Possessing a very talented but largely unheralded crew chief named Alan Gustafson atop the team's war wagon, the younger Busch-family version of 2004 champ Kurt Busch is flat-out impressive.
However, one can't help but think Kyle also possesses a similar version of his older brother's "dark side" that's out there somewhere on the verge, waiting to rear up. Here's hope it's better constrained, but either way, Kyle Busch is going to leave a considerable mark on this sport.
6 -- Kasey Kahne. This year Kahne will produce Evernham Motorsports' highest yet Cup points finish but will have to wait for at least another year to completely grab life by the horns -- which is all but certain to happen somewhere down the mainly oval road.
Back in his rookie season when Kahne was walking completely unmolested through an otherwise very crowded "not hot" Nextel Cup Daytona International Speedway Speed Weeks garage, a certain reporter said, "Don't worry, Mr. Kahne, people will someday bug you far more because it's my job to make you famous." The boy's done a darn good job of doing that all by his lonesome.
7 -- Kevin Harvick. Happy likely hasn't been as happy since he finished 5th in the 2003 Cup points race.
For the last couple of years fellow motorsports writer Ken Willis has used one very repetitious but succinct and accurate phrase to describe Harvick's past propensity to unexpectedly blow: "Tick ... tick ... tick ... tick."
So far this season one wonders where the Harvick of old has gone and, until he clears an entire season without self-destructing, one must remember "that ticking sound you hear" usually comes from Harvick.
8 -- Jeff Burton. After back-to-back 18th-place points finishes the previous two seasons, Burton opened the 2006 season with a pole-winning effort for the Daytona 500. Burton then began to drive home the promise he expressed when undertaking the switch from Roush Racing to Richard Childress Racing in late-August 2004.
His train has slowly gained momentum, going from three RCR top-10s in 2004 (albeit having run only 14 races with the team), then doubling that total in 2005 and by furthermore scoring 15 top-10s already in 2006.
Unfortunately, the train has run out of enough steam to score Burton's first Cup crown. Maybe he needs some of what Martin has.
9 -- Denny Hamlin. Born on a day when this writer was already well into his 4th decade of life, this youngest top-10 driver has done a remarkable job.
When others thought he had little or no chance to even score rookie-of-the-year honors, Hamlin not only surged to the front of that category -- scoring the best rookie results in posting a top-15-or-better finish in 13 of 26 races this year -- he also sits fifth in Cup points as the Chase gets underway.
Still, one wonders if Hamlin has yet to understand the gravity of his accomplishment -- and what may follow in its realization. Should he zealously continue to pursue his dream and do well enough at it to find himself on top of the points at season end, Hamlin will have become the first rookie in Cup history to do so.
As cool as a fairytale "Rookie Wins Cup" story sounds, he's gonna wake up.
10 -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. How'd he get into this Chase deal, anyway?
If you listen to the conspiracy theorists found behind every stack of Good Year Eagles, NASCAR's people in the control tower made it happen. Junior loyalists see it as Junior and cousin/crew chief Tony Eury Jr. having finally lit a fuse in the wake of a lackluster, if not downright disappointing 2005 season.
In the 2004 Chase, Junior followed Kurt Busch's first place with a third-place finish at Loudon II. From that point the two headed for Dover tied for first in Cup points and despite Junior later winning two (Talladega and Phoenix) of the ten final races -- while Busch all but finished last in 42nd at Atlanta -- the two drivers went down separate roads with Busch scoring his championship and Junior ultimately sliding to fifth in points.
Interestingly, even though Junior finished fifth in the 2005 Loudon II, of the Chase drivers heading there this year he has the worst average finish -- 18.857 -- among them.
Worse yet? Attitude or, perhaps, realism. Asked this week at Loudon II to rate his optimism level, Junior answered, "It's 100, I guess."
-- DC Williams, exclusively for Motorsport.com