The end of Talladega marks the ninth race of the Sprint Cup season, which is also the quarter of the way (already) mark. So far, there have been some surprising teams up front, and some surprising teams in the back.
It's still too early to list the top 12, so I will take the drivers in the top 12, and then the drivers 100 points and closer, and see if they are legitimate contenders, or just someone whose luck may be over.
Let's start with current points leader, Kurt Busch.
Kurt drives the number 2 Miller Lite Dodge, for Penske Championship Racing. Kurt is a contender for the chase. He's already won at Atlanta this season, and leads the points.
After a tough season for Penske Racing in 2008, Busch, and teammates David Stremme, and Sam Hornish are looking much better this season. Ryan Newman drove Stremme's car last year.
When it looked like that Penske Racing needed a total revamp of the whole NASCAR organization, they are once again back on top. With Kurt being a former champion, no doubt, they're a big time contender to make it.
Next, is Jeff Gordon.
Gordon's only blip on the screen so far this season, was last week at Talladega, where he got into a wreck that wasn't his doing.
The four-time series champion is another legitimate contender for the chase. Although it's been almost eight years since Jeff has hoisted the Cup trophy (hard to believe), he hasn't lost any of his driving ability, and at age 37 (wow), he's not done winning yet!
Next is three time defending series champion, Jimmie Johnson. Enough said. Johnson is a contender.
Next is Tony Stewart.
People thought that Tony was going to struggle in his first year as an owner/driver. He's actually been better.
Tony is usually a second-half driver anyway, and he's finishing up front, just not winning, and as the old adage goes, "you must first finish to finish first." Tony will be fine, and is a contender.
Denny Hamlin is next.
Denny came out of the gates in his Sprint Cup career on fire, but has struggled to impress since. Denny is an ok driver, not even good, and in a list with all of these great drivers, Denny's not going to make the chase.
He struggled in 2008, and instead of taking responsibility for his faltering, he blamed it on the equipment at Joe Gibbs Racing. Denny, it's not JGR, it's you, he's a pretender, even though he's had a nice start.
Kyle Busch is next.
Kyle is a contender, right now, to make the chase, although he hasn't had the start he'd like. Kyle has ran good, and if it weren't for the wreck in Daytona, he'd have three wins this season.
But last week showed me something different. Jeff Burton dumped Kyle last week, Jeff Burton of all people!
If Jeff Burton is spinning you out, then you're making the wrong people mad, and he better watch, or he may get bumped one too many times, and miss the chase.
Steve Addington doesn't help the situation either, the chase last year showed how the crew chief Steve really is. It may be tough for Kyle to make it in a year where's he's not as dominate, with a crew chief with as little skill as Addington.
All in all, Kyle is a great driver, and is a contender to make the chase.
Carl Edwards is a contender as well, and like Kyle, has not been as dominant as he was in 2008.
Carl has failed to win a race in 2009, and with the struggles of Roush Fenway Racing in 2009. It may be harder for Carl to reestablish himself, but at the end, he's a contender.
Clint Bowyer also had a nice start.
I feel though that Clint is a pretender. He was on fire to start the season, but has struggled mightily since, and RCR has looked good at times, and terrible at others so far.
Plus, Richard Childress seems more focused on getting Kevin Harvick in the chase, then Bowyer. Clint may need some more time with crew chief Shane Wilson, Bowyer is a pretender for now, until he proves otherwise.
His teammate Jeff Burton is next.
Jeff has the experience, and talent to make it, but that will only keep him a contender. Jeff's days of winning three or more races in a year are far behind him, but he'll stay in contention because of his ability, not RCR's.
Greg Biffle is coming on like gang busters lately. I think he can keep this up, and make it, but it will be tough for Biffle, whose 2005, six win season, seems a long long time ago.
David Reutimann will not keep up his good start.
Reutimann may have the ability, but MWR doesn't. Reutimann is self admittedly the worst road racer in the series.
David is in his third year of Cup racing, and has shocked many so far this season, but I still find it hard to believe that a car that has anything to do with Michael Waltrip would make the chase.
David is a few really bad runs of falling out of the top 12 totally, and with some great road racers behind him, I don't see Reutimann making the chase. He's a pretender.
Next is Matt Kenseth.
Matt won of the first two races of the season; and after that has been muted. If you don't follow the Sprint Cup Series closely, you wouldn't even know Kenseth was even in the series if you didn't watch the first two races.
Yet, he's still a contender. For one, it's hard to count out an ex-champion in top of the line equipment, and two, he did this last year, and made it. Kenseth fans, no worries, he should make the chase.
Thirteenth is Ryan Newman, and despite a great run at Talladega, I've noticed a trend with this team, if US Army isn't on the car, then the car doesn't run well. Tony Stewart put all of the pieces in place to make this team a contender for the chase, however, Newman won't make it in 2009, making him a pretender.
Kasey Kahne is fourteenth.
Kahne has been finishing in the top 20 for most of the season. However, that won't be good enough with Mark Martin behind him, he's a pretender.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is next.
Right now he's still a contender, but that will change if he doesn't win the Coke Zero 400. Being this far back, drivers are going to win a race to make it, and Jr., has to win, which is something he's had trouble doing in past seasons.
Jr. is going to need some magic. He's got everything in place to be a contender.
However, he needs to focus more, because he's proven he has the talent, it's the heart that is lacking. He needs to find the love again to make it.
He can't miss his pit stalls, and make the chase, there are too many drivers that don't that are here. If he focuses, he'll make it no problem, if not, it will be the most disappointing season of his career.
Juan Pablo Montoya has 5 top 15 finishes in nine races. With a great run at Talladega last week, and two road courses coming up, that Montoya can win, he's a contender.
I'm not a big Montoya person, but he's impressed me so far.
Brian Vickers has the skill, and the team, but they lack something, and I'm not sure what.
Perhaps this team is focusing more on getting the 82 car solidly in, and that will hurt Vickers. Also, maybe hiring Ryan Pemberton may not have such a good idea.
Vickers and Kevin Hamlin seemed to have great chemistry last season, and that's something that he and Pemberton seem to lack. Vickers is a pretender once again, maybe next year.
The final driver in this count down is Mark Martin.
He's proven to us that he can still win, and that's all I needed.
Tough luck last week at Talladega, dealt Mark a bad hand. Know that he can still win.
He will again, and maybe even again. Martin still has a very good chance of making it, he just can't have anymore bad luck!
Outside of this, there is still one more driver to keep an eye on, is Kevin Harvick.
It's going to be interesting to see how the crew change will effect Harvick. His track record proves he's a contender, and he is the only one that is a contender, that is not less than 100 points out of 12th.