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Halfway to the Chase, the top 12 may be locked

Kasey Kahne and David Reutimann seem like strong contenders to jump in, but who tumbles out? Does the proverbial anvil hit Mark Martin on the head and ruin one of the season's great stories? Carl Edwards couldn't possibly miss ... could he?

1. Tony Stewart: It should go without saying, but the Stewart-Haas race team was not exactly a from-scratch outfit. Certainly, leasing engines from and co-mingling expertise with powerful Hendrick Motorsports provided many advantages. And yes, Stewart is a two-time series champion -- skillful, willful and proud. But seriously, this is amazing. As a driver, Stewart has seemed undistracted and sporadically fiery, with six top 5s and nine top 10s in 13 races. Meanwhile, as an owner, he's been content and proud. Those personas came together in Victory Lane at the All-Star race for the first time. Haas CNC had never won before Stewart took over, and he's the first driver/owner to lead the Sprint Cup standings since Alan Kulwicki won the 1992 championship.

2. Jeff Gordon: The four-time series champion ended a 47-race winless streak with a victory at Texas and has lingered at or near the top of the standings for much of the season. No. 24 has some fight left in him, and he'll need it if he's going to dethrone Jimmie Johnson, his friend/protégé/Hendrick Motorsports teammate this season.

3. Jimmie Johnson: The three-time defending series champion is mincing through another 'regular' season before game-time begins, and he started flexing a bit last week with a win at Dover. With two victories, he's one ahead of his total from this time last year and clearly ahead of his 2008 pace in finding speed and comfort in the No. 48 Chevrolet. And we all know how that one turned out.

4. Kurt Busch: Clearly the lead driver with the departure of Ryan Newman, he's driving more like the 2004 Sprint Cup champion and proving his status in the team hierarchy. He already matched his win total from last season (one) and got away with calling team owner Roger Penske "dude." Times are good.

5. Ryan Newman: His decision to join Stewart was not supposed to be validated this quickly, but four top 5s and seven top 10s have made him a weekly force for the first time since before his situation at Penske Racing eroded.

6. Kyle Busch: The 24-year-old dervish had four wins by this time last season. He has three now. But he's seemingly done it much more quietly, if that's possible for one of NASCAR's most brash and skillful drivers. Another four-win summer would prime him for the Chase.

7. Denny Hamlin: He's not been spectacular, but he's been around, and that's what matters in the run-up to the Chase. Hamlin had consecutive runner-up finishes at Bristol and Martinsville but is averaging a 14.2 finish overall.

8. Matt Kenseth: He followed a Daytona 500 victory with a win the next week at Fontana, Calif., but Kenseth returned to the field a bit thereafter. Still, he's NASCAR's version of high blood pressure ('the silent killer') and should be in contention for a second championship.

9. Greg Biffle: The former truck and Nationwide series champion turns 40 on Dec. 23, and winning a historic first Cup championship is on the bucket list. He would be the first to accomplish the feat. A loose lug nut in Texas in 2005 might have cost him a first one, as he finished second in points. A race-winner each of the past six seasons, he seems set for another run.

10. Jeff Burton: Right in the mix again, the veteran has been the one consistent program for a Richard Childress Racing team that has disappointed. A top-10 finisher each of the past three seasons, Burton's guile and grit seemingly make him a player again.

11. Carl Edwards: Anointed the man to break Johnson's grip on the series after finishing second by 69 points last season, Edwards has four finishes of 24th or worse, and is winless after claiming a series-best nine victories in 2008. One of those wins came at Pocono last fall and the remaining schedule is loaded with tracks where he excels, so he could still be the guy.

12. Mark Martin: A truly dangerous driver if he qualifies for his fourth Chase, the 50-year-old already has wins at Phoenix and Darlington. His bid for a first title after 27 Cup seasons would be the storyline of the Chase ... until Johnson wins his fourth consecutively.

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13. David Reutimann: His first Cup victory -- in the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 -- reinvigorated his season. Reutimann eschewed the "Franchise" moniker team-owner Michael Waltrip affixed to him, but he's trying to carry the organization to its first Chase.

14. Kasey Kahne: His seemingly upward-hurtling career has been stalled since the 2006 season, when he led the series with six wins, and finished eighth overall. Maybe it was the Dodge engine program, and maybe it was a combination of other factors at Evernham. Whatever it was, with a new Dodge engine under the hood, his shop situation seemingly settled, and consecutive top-10 finishes banked, Kahne might be the most likely of the current outsiders to jump inside.

15. Juan Pablo Montoya: The former open-wheel juggernaut has become a weekly force in his third Sprint Cup season. His qualifying is much-improved and his finishes more consistent as his Ganassi team now enjoys those Chevrolet engines after merging with Dale Earnhardt Inc. Two upcoming road course races could greatly enhance his chances for a first Chase.

16. Clint Bowyer: A perennial title-contender in his first three full Cup seasons, he admitted to great trepidation when team owner Richard Childress moved him from the No. 07 to the No. 33 to help give new teammate Casey Mears a push-start. It's not working out for anyone.

17. Brian Vickers: A season of spikes (two top-5s, five top-10s) and sputters (five finishes of 25th or worse) still holds potential for a mad dash to Richmond.

18. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: In a season of unfulfilled expectation with cousin/crew chief Tony Eury Jr. reassigned, Junior has the look of a driver mired.

19. Martin Truex Jr.: A crash and 33rd-place finish at Talladega began a dismal stretch.

The Danica Patrick-to-NASCAR speculation whirlwind will intensify until the 27-year-old IndyCar driver re-signs with Andretti Green Racing, as she has said was her preference. But Patrick -- keenly aware of her finite window to capitalize on her finite resources of talent, sex appeal and corporate credibility -- wisely seems determined to see what she's worth.

That might have been a lot more before the intergalactic economy tanked, before top-level Sprint Cup teams either stocked themselves with the best of the available commodities or were forced to hunker down and wait for the financial storm to pass.

But here's an interesting bit of debris for the whirlwind: when asked by the St. Petersburg Times this spring which drivers she would poll for their opinions of a possible switch to NASCAR, she mentioned Tony Stewart prominently. The former Indy Racing League champion turned two-time Sprint Cup champion is the first driver/owner to lead the standings of NASCAR's top-tier series since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 and teammate Ryan Newman, who has finished no better than 13th in the final standings since 2005, is fifth.

"Tony Stewart, nice guy; got to hang out with him in his motor home for awhile at the Phoenix race," she said. "I'm a fool to not be inquisitive. 'What's it like? What's the schedule like? What are the races like? Is the car tough to drive?' The same general questions I'd ask, to be honest, whether I had a decision to make in six, eight months or not. And then Dale (Earnhardt Jr.), I'd talk to him, but I'd ask Tony."

An engine lease program and snuggly relationship with Hendrick Motorsports engines, combined with obvious driver acumen and Stewart's ability to lure quality personnel has made his team an instant factor. And unlike many other organizations, he has room to grow.

If Patrick were able to bring a sponsor with her, she could perhaps not only solidify her ride but Newman's, as well.