As NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series regular season closes, it is time to take a close look as to who the championship contenders will be in 2008.
There will be six more races until the final checkered flag waves for all but 12 talented drivers and teams.
Now is the so-called "crunch time" for most teams that are lying on the bubble.
It is almost guaranteed that Kyle Busch will be ranked first after the conclusion of the race at Richmond this September. However, there are no guarantees in NASCAR!
And as usual, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Matt Kenseth will all likely solidify a spot in the Chase for the Cup.
But what about the unexpected drivers? Remember Clint Bowyer last season? He almost shocked the world but came up a little short from stealing a second cup from Jimmie Johnson.
Is there anyone who will be Clint Bowyer this year? Perhaps Bowyer will pull it off this year. Or will Jimmie Johnson pull off the three-peat in a very quiet manner this year?
Currently, Dale Earnhardt Jr. possesses second place in the championship standings. It is very difficult to say that he is "quietly in second place," but he really has been quiet this season.
He has one win at Michigan, and is a crowd favorite, but he has maneuvered his way to second place after a rocky start to the season, which began with questions surrounding Junior and his new team.
Third place belongs to Jeff Burton. Another quiet driver. Burton has not won a race all year. Lately, he has been notorious for making the chase, but doing so without the attention from the media. Do not count Burton out.
He is one of the most patient and consistent drivers on the circuit and is due for a championship.
How about Greg Biffle? In 2005 Biffle dominated NASCAR's Nextel Cup series season, until Tony Stewart's team got hot and took off with a championship. Biffle is back in the running in 2008. He has no wins, but his eight top 10s make put him in seventh place currently.
Biffle belongs to a strong Rouch-Fenway team with Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. Look for these three to be strong in the chase.
Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart by no means strike me as sleepers, but in terms of performance this season, they have not made much noise. But they have made enough noise to put their teams into a position to win a championship.
Both drivers race for highly respected teams and will undoubtedly have teammates alongside them in the chase. Harvick is usually good for a win each season, and Stewart is a two-time champion and knows how to get hot and stay hot.
In 2006, Kasey Kahne won the most races in the season, but unfortunately fell to Jimmie Johnson's first championship win. After 2006, Kahne struggled all through 2007.
But Kahne is back in 2008 and may be the only Dodge Charger driver representative. Kahne is usually good at fast, high-banked race tracks like Michigan, Texas, Atlanta, and Lowes which all remain on the schedule.
Don't forget about Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, and Brian Vickers. All three drivers are knocking at the door for entry into the chase for the cup. Bowyer has demonstrated his talent last season and has Childress Racing power and technology.
David Ragan would be a surprise. He struggled his rookie season, but put it together in 2008. He has Rousch-Fenway power and experienced teammates to help him make the push into the chase.
The 83 team has shown strength all season long with Brian Vickers behind the wheel. Vickers is always a threat at the fast, high-banked tracks, but usually seems to find trouble.
It is difficult when racing for a young team, but Vickers' experience is leading Team RedBull into a positive direction.
The 2008 season should have quite a conclusion. At this point, Kyle Busch seems to be the likely champion. But NASCAR is a sport of unknowns.
Anything can, and usually, will happen.
So keep a lookout for the "quieter" chase contenders. They may have something under their sleeve for Kyle Busch. Who knows, maybe ever one of Busch's teammates will take him under?
Aaron Stella MT(ASCP)