With eight races left before the field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup is set at Richmond, only three drivers are absolute locks to transfer into NASCAR's twelve-driver playoffs - points leader Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and reigning champion Jimmie Johnson.

On the surface, fourth-place Kurt Busch seems safe enough but, at 305 points behind Stewart and 313 ahead of 13th place, a couple of unmitigated disasters could still derail his efforts. With the way Busch has run this year, however, that seems highly unlikely.

If there's real danger, though, it threatens positions seven through twelve, and, if there's real opportunity, it's available to positions 13 through 16 in the standings, to the four drivers currently on the outside looking in - but not outside by much. Here's how we rate those 'on the cusp' - the 'bubble boys':

Matt Kenseth (currently tenth, 100 points ahead of 13th)
Kenseth is anything but spectacular since winning the first two races of the season, but he nevertheless is consistent enough to make the Chase for the sixth straight year. Kenseth and Johnson are the only drivers who have never missed. Odds to make the Chase: 10-9
Ryan Newman (seventh, plus 134 points).
Newman is the polar opposite of Kenseth, having overcome a succession of mishaps to start the season. Six drivers would have to pass 'Rocket Man' to knock him out of the Chase, and odds against that are long. Odds: 6-5.
Kyle Busch (eighth, plus 133 points)
With three wins, Busch should be a lock by now, but his win-at-all-costs mentality produces boom-or-bust results. With excellent equipment and his own top-notch talent, however, Busch should make the post-season. A small measure of big-picture thinking might help him solidify his position. Odds: 7-5

Greg Biffle (ninth, plus 114 points)
Biffle's cars are fast enough. His crew is one of the best in the garage. All Biffle has to do is keep the car on the track. The negative is that he has more DNFs (two) than any other driver in the top twelve. Odds: 7-5.
Juan Pablo Montoya (eleventh, plus 86 points)
With the Chase as his prize, Montoya admits he's points racing, and he's doing it well, having found a way to finish in the top ten in five of his past seven races. With a respectable finish at Chicagoland, where he has run 15th and 18th in his only two starts, Montoya could make headway at Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen and Michigan. Odds: 16-11.
Kasey Kahne (twelfth, plus 65 points)
The win at Sonoma was a surprise - and helped Kahne immeasurably - but, aside from that, his best finish in the past five races is a tenth at New Hampshire. He's in the top twelve right now but will need better results in the next eight races to stay there. Odds: 9-5.
Mark Martin (13th, 65 points behind twelfth)
Like Kyle Busch, Martin has three victories, but he also has three DNFs, most of any driver in the top 16. A rare mistake at Daytona, where his car pushed up the track into Kenseth's, cost him dearly, but Martin isn't likely to squander the 30 bonus points he earned with his three wins. Odds: 8-5.

David Reutimann (14th, minus 74 points).
Reutimann has been flirting with the top twelve all season, sometimes in, sometimes out. In order to boost his chances, he'll have to find a way to post a respectable finish at Watkins Glen, where he finished 33rd last year in his only start at the road course. Reutimann's hopes took a major blow in the same 4 July Daytona wreck that sidelined Dale Earnhardt Jr. Odds: 3-1.

Jeff Burton (15th, minus 105 points).
Burton's team has been making gains, even if it hasn't shown in the race results. It's tough to write off Burton's chances to make his fourth straight Chase, but he'll have to do better than the six top tens he posted in the first 18 races--and he'll have to pass at least three other drivers to get there. Odds: 2-1.
Clint Bowyer (16th, minus-135 points).
Bowyer's story is one of a season in decline. He claimed three top fives in the first six races, none since. In a six-race stretch that started at Texas and ended at Lowe's, Bowyer dropped precipitously from second to 17th in points. Without a 180-degree turnaround at a Richard Childress Racing organisation gutted by cutbacks in manufacturer support, Bowyer won't make it. Odds: 4-1.

Reid Spencer / Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service


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