Though the 10-race playoff format makes it increasingly like that power teams use the "regular" season as a 26-week testing session, being in contention halfway to the Chase is important. Since the format was instituted in its original form in 2004, just six drivers in the Chase boundary after the 13th race of the season at Dover have failed to qualify for the playoffs. And Mark Martin did so last year in large part because he was racing a partial schedule.
So, 13 races into the NASCAR Sprint Cup season and halfway to the Chase for the Championship, let's take a look at how things stand.
1. Kyle Busch: Hell hath no fury like a driver scorned. Smote and cast asunder by Hendrick Motorsports, the 23 year old has seemingly harnessed his considerable talents with the simple aim of complete domination, his ultimate goal making Rick Hendrick admit he made a mistake by replacing him with Dale Earnhardt Jr. All right, perhaps a bit dramatic, but Busch is 142 points ahead in the standings with four wins in 13 races while moonlighting in the Nationwide and truck series, where he's combined to win six more times. Take a breath, kid.
2. Jeff Burton: The sage veteran says he hasn't run as well as last year, which could be disquieting except for his points standing. He's the antithesis of Busch: patient, poised.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: The winless streak -- now 74 -- though undoubtedly disconcerting, is quietly taking all the notice from a heartening first season at Hendrick. He was 14th in the standings this time last year but now is the top Hendrick driver by points.
4. Carl Edwards: He was the dominant driver of the first few weeks of the season before Busch's dominance out-dominated his dominance. His three wins would bump him to second in the standings with the Chase re-seed.
5. Greg Biffle: Welcome back, Biff. In 2005, the 38-year-old veteran was a loose lug nut at Texas and 35 points at Homestead away from becoming the first to win championships in NASCAR's top three series. He's taken this long to get back into title-contending form.
6. Jeff Gordon: Winless? What? Middle of the pack is about where this team belongs after seemingly missing it a few times. Three straight top-5s indicate he could soon get the two wins he needs to tie Cale Yarborough for fifth on the all-time wins list.
7. Jimmie Johnson: The two-time defending series champion has looked pretty mortal at times, but it's not money time yet. Chances are he'll be better when it matters, which could be the mantra of the entire Hendrick stable. A winner at Phoenix, he has the look of a team waiting for the real races to begin.
8. Clint Bowyer: His Richmond win sort of fell into his cockpit and he's led just 150 laps all season, but Bowyer is following the model of his Richard Childress Racing teammate -- Jeff Burton -- in becoming numbingly consistent. He has seven top-10s, all in a row, ending at Richmond and has run all but 25 of 4,464 laps this season.
9. Denny Hamlin: Has a win at Martinsville, four top-5s and seven top-10s in 13 races, but has been frustrated by some trouble that took away opportunities for victory. Plowing hard into an early wreck at Dover last week cost him just his third DNF in 92 career Cup races.
10. Kevin Harvick: Knocked out four top-10s in the first five races, but has digressed, leading just 34 laps all season, 32 of them at Bristol in the third week of the season. He's been in the Chase field after Dover but failed to make the playoffs twice.
11. Tony Stewart: Has God sent a pestilence down upon Stewart's season since he admitted to the temptation of leaving Joe Gibbs Racing for another team after '09 (or perhaps before)? Flat tires and wrecks were not mentioned in the Old Testament, but JGR does have a burning Busch.
12. Kasey Kahne: NASCAR's erstwhile contender claimed his first win since visiting Victory Lane six times in '06 and may have signaled that Gillett Evernham Motorsports is ready to compete again.
13. David Ragan: Wow, look what happens when a rookie comes into the sport's highest level, is given time to mature and learns how to compete.
14. Ryan Newman: The Daytona 500 victory was no free pass to the Chase, but his performance since -- with the exception of horrendous finishes at Bristol, Phoenix and Darlington -- has been good enough to stay viable.
15. Martin Truex Jr.: DEI's standard-bearer is either dead-on or dead-wrong.
16. Matt Kenseth: Only he and Jimmie Johnson have qualified for the Chase every season since its inception. Horrendous for stretches, he has three straight top-7 finishes.
Kahne: He'd started to look like a television commercial actor who also raced. But the ladies love him anyway.
Newman, Kenseth, Kurt Busch (20th): Kenseth and Busch have each won championships. Newman and Busch race for a guy named Penske that expects more than this.
Greg BiffleClint BowyerJeff BurtonKyle BuschDale Earnhardt Jr.Carl EdwardsJeff GordonDenny HamlinJimmie JohnsonKasey KahneMatt KensethDavid Ragan
Gibbs up, Hendrick down: This is a bit tough on both, because Gibbs is a quality organization, having won three titles since '00, but to have claimed five Cup wins without Stewart getting one of them is impressive. Its Nationwide program has been a juggernaut. And there was no way Hendrick could have maintained the dominance it established in winning 10 of the first 14 races and half of the 36-race schedule last season. Their edge with the so-called "Car of Tomorrow" was negated when the rest of the field was able to focus on it.
The open wheel invasion: So far it's not made it off the beach and is in danger of being driven back into the sea. Indianapolis 500 winners Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti have danced around the top-35 cut-off much of the season, making many qualifying sessions their own personal Bump Day. Franchitti broke a bone in his ankle and missed time after a Nationwide crash at Talladega. Penske (Hornish Jr.) and Ganassi (Franchitti) say this is a long-term process, but all this makes Juan Pablo Montoya's debut last season, with a Cup and Nationwide win, more impressive.