We are one-third of the way through the NASCAR season, and more importantly, just about half way through the regular season.
That means that some drivers will begin jockeying for positions inside the coveted top 10, while other drivers will step their intense pushes just to get in the Chase field.
At this point in the season, some drivers have already made themselves into real championship contenders, while others still have some work to do to be considered legitimate threats for the title. I am going to look at 12 drivers that could win the championship, but by some standards may be considered under the radar at this point.
This is for the sake of argument, and I think we could all agree that Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch are the three drivers that are on everyone's radar as far as real championship contenders, so they will not be featured here.
All Kevin Harvick has done so far this year is go out and win three of the first 12 events, and jump to second in the Sprint Cup points. All this after starting the year with a blown engine and a 42nd place finish in the Daytona 500.
As the series leader in wins, Harvick has managed to do it fairly quietly. In his three wins, he has led a grand total of nine laps. For the season he has only led 108 circuits, which puts him 12th in that category.
But this is a driver that knows how to get the job done. He has a couple of Nationwide Series championships to his credit. He was also right in the thick of the championship battle all year last season.
Harvick dominated the points for much of the 2010 season, and was one of three drivers with a chance to win the title at Homestead in the final race of the year.
Though he hasn't been up front leading laps very much this year, he has done more than enough to warrant keeping an eye on him as the Chase gets under way.
Matt Kenseth is in the midst of a bounce back season. The last three years have been fairly difficult for the Wisconsin native, but this year, he has reclaimed his place among the elite of the sport.
While posting 20 top 10 finishes, Kenseth went winless in 2008, and only finished 11th in the standings. After winning the first two races of 2009, he completely fell off the map and didn't even qualify for the Chase, as he had just a total of 12 top 10's.
Last year, Kenseth clawed his way to a fifth place points finish, but failed to find victory lane, and on the whole, his statistics for the year were unimpressive.
This year however, Kenseth has already won twice, and a few times this season has looked absolutely dominant. He has led 334 laps, which is 19 less than he led in the last two years combined.
Kenseth has always been steady and consistent, and this year in a season where there seems to be so much balance, consistency is going to be extremely important.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having his best season in quite some time. Currently he finds himself in fourth place in the standings, and has scored six top 10 finishes through the seasons first 12 races.
Last Saturday night Earnhardt Jr. was a quarter of a lap away from ending his current 105 race winless draught when his fuel tank ran dry, and he was forced to settle for a disappointing seventh place finish.
Earnhardt Jr. has had only one finish outside the top 20 so far this year, and that came at the Daytona 500 where he finished 24th after being involved in a late race accident after having one of the best cars throughout the entire event.
Barring any major setbacks, Earnhardt Jr. should have no problem qualifying for the Chase, but if he wants to win it and be called a champion, it is imperative that he find victory lane at least once this season.
Jeff Gordon scored a win at Phoenix earlier in the year, but other than that not a whole lot has gone right for the former four-time champion. He has just three top 10's through 12 races, and at times it seems that the No. 24 team has just been way off.
Though he currently sits just 16th in the point standings, with the new Chase qualifying procedures, Gordon would earn one of the two wild card spots if the Chase were to begin today.
For the most part, Gordon and new crew chief Alan Gustafson have worked well together. They have good communication, and there is no doubt that Gordon knows how to drive a race car.
As long as they can string together a few good performances, Gordon should be able to qualify for the Chase, and once they get in, there are some very good race tracks for Gordon on the Chase schedule.
This is a championship quality race team, they just need to start getting some better finishes than they have scored thus far this season.
The recent struggles of Kurt Busch and the entire No. 22 team have been well documented over the last few weeks. But this is a driver that has won a championship under the Chase format, and was the points leader after four weeks of the season.
While he has failed to win a points paying race this year, Busch won both the Bud Shootout and his Gatorade Dual race at Daytona, so this team has already proven that they have what it takes to win races and be the car to beat.
Busch is the only driver that has been in the top 10 in the points all season long, so while they have struggled, it hasn't ever been bad enough to take them out of Chase contention.
After a top 5 finish in Charlotte and a pole win at Kansas it seems that this team might be making a return to top form, and if that is the case, this former champion is a competitor that shouldn't be taken lightly.
Clint Bowyer has made up 16 positions in the points standings over the last eight races. After getting off to a horrendous start to the season that saw a best finish of 15th through four races, Bowyer has fought his way back.
Overall, he has scored six top-10s through the first 12 races, including back-to-back runner up finishes at Texas and Talladega.
Though he has failed to win so far this year, Bowyer has spent plenty of time up at the front of the field. The 253 laps that he has led this year are the sixth most, and Bowyer is no stranger to strong points finishes at the Sprint Cup level.
Bowyer has three top 10 points finishes in five full time seasons, including a third and a fifth. He won two races last year, making it the first time in his career he won multiple races in a season. Look for Bowyer to continue his hot streak, and pick up a win or two on his way into the Chase.
Greg Biffle is a driver who has gotten off to a fairly slow start in 2011, but somehow finds himself in 11th in the points. He only has four top-10s, and just one of those is a top-5 finish.
Biffle may have gotten the turn around to his season going over the last two weekends in Charlotte. He was extremely strong in the All-Star race, leading the most laps in that event.
He carried that momentum into the Coca Cola 600 where he had to settle for a disappointing 13th place finish after being forced to pit for fuel with three laps to go while leading.
Biffle has had plenty of success in the Chase. As long as he can manage to find a way to get in, he is a definite threat. Biffle has finished second and third respectively in the Chase, and seven of his 16 career wins have come in the final 10 race playoff.
Tony Stewart has had a couple of very good races, but for the most part has just quietly gone about his business, and he currently finds himself in ninth in the standings.
Stewart has four top-10s through the first third of the season, and was the dominant car at Las Vegas, before being relegated to a runner up finish. After leaving that race with the points lead, Stewart and his team have been trying to find their early season magic.
Over the last nine events, Stewart has only scored a pair of top-10s, but he is notorious for starting seasons slow only to gain momentum once the summer months hit.
Stewart is a two time series champion, and along with Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch is the only other driver to have won a championship under the Chase format.
Denny Hamlin came closer to unseating Jimmie Johnson as champion than anyone before him. Hamlin took the points lead into the final race of the season, but struggled at Homestead, and saw his title hopes dashed by the five-time champion.
He came into this season as the odds on favorite to be the No. 1 contender to Johnson's crown yet again, but the first part of the season has been anything but championship worthy for Hamlin and the No. 11 bunch.
Through 12 races Hamlin has just four top-10s, but he has gotten much better as the season has gone along. Three of his four top-10s have come over the course of the last four weeks, and he has improved from 17th to 12th in the points over that time.
A season after winning a series high eight races last year, he has yet to find victory lane in 2011. He shouldn't be shut out too much longer as this team looks to really be turning a corner.
Hamlin should be able to find his way in to the Chase, and after his near miss last year, he will have plenty of motivation for this years playoff run.
In his final season driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Mark Martin may also be in his final season with a realistic chance at winning his first career championship. After a disappointing 2010 campaign, Martin has come back with a consistent start to the 2011 season.
Other than the two races where Martin crashed out, he has run in the top 20 in each of the other 10 races. He has four top-10s and currently finds himself in 14th place in the points.
After the second race of the year Martin had made it up to fifth in the standings, other than that he has been between ninth and 15th the entire year. He hasn't really done anything special, but at the same time, he hasn't done too much that would be deemed catastrophic.
Martin and crew chief Lance McGrew seem to work well together and they have brought some fast race cars to a few different tracks. It is not inconceivable that this team score a win that helps propel them into the Chase.
There's no denying that if Martin wants another shot at the championship he has to start putting together some better than average finishes, but if he gets into the Chase he will once again be the sentimental favorite, and that could go a long way.
In what is to be his only season driving for Red Bull Racing, the 2011 campaign has seemingly been hit or miss for Kasey Kahne.
Kahne has looked good in a few races, as he has tallied five top-10s, but has also posted four finishes of 25th or worse. Kahne was in position to score his first win of the year last weekend at Charlotte after Greg Biffle was forced to pit for fuel just prior to the green-white-checkered finish.
That handed the lead to Kahne, who promptly saw his fuel tank run dry as the field took the green flag. Though the finish wasn't as good as it could have, or should have been, strong runs will go a long way for Kahne and the No. 4 team as the end of the regular season draws near.
Currently Kahne is 19th in the points, but he is only 44 points away from being in the top 10. While that is a few weeks worth of good finishes, it is certainly doable with 14 races to go.
Kahne seems to typically be a driver of streaks. When things go well, they typically go very well. So, if he can get on a hot streak, he could be very tough to beat.
One year removed from his dream season, Jamie McMurray is having a rough go of things thus far in 2011. But, last year he showed that he is more than capable of winning multiple races, and if he can do that again this year, it would be enough to propel him into the Chase, where many people expected that he would be this year.
So far this year, McMurray has scored just two top-10 finishes and has just as many DNF's. He currently sits 26th in the standings, and would actually have to be considered one of the biggest disappointments of the 2011 season.
But, with the advent of the wild card this year, a couple of quick wins would go along way in getting McMurray's season turned around, and getting him into the Chase.
While McMurray would certainly be a long shot at this point, he proved himself last year with his three huge wins, and if he could pull something off like that again this year, he would be right there in contention.