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':
(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
(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
(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
(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
(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
(13th, 65 points behind twelfth)