by Trevor Whenham - 05/31/2006
Do you bet on Nascar? Why not? The Nextel circuit is almost halfway through the Race to the Chase (26 races that determine the 10 drivers who get to take a shot at the championship), so the contenders have been identified and the pretenders know who they are. They run almost every week, so there are plenty of opportunities to bet, and enough consistency to make some money. If you're not into Nascar (and you should be), here's a look at the 12 drivers in the strongest position to grab a coveted spot in the Top Ten:
Jimmie Johnson - The current points leader has been having his way with the rest of the competitors this year. He has won four races (though one, the All Star Challenge, was a non-points race). He won the biggest race of the year for the fans, the Daytona 500, to start the season. He has won from the front of the grid twice, but he's also shown he can come from way back, winning the Aaron's 499 from the 16th position. Besides having the most wins, he has the most top tens and the most top fives. He might not hold the lead all year, but he'll add more wins, and he's a shoe-in for the Chase. He's at short odds every week.
Tony Stewart - The bad boy of Nascar is back in the mix yet again. He's won just once this year, but he strung together a nice streak of four top three finishes. He's been inconsistent in qualifying, grabbing a pole once, but also starting lower than 30th twice. When Stewart is on his game he's always dangerous.
Matt Kenseth - He's sitting neck and neck with Stewart. Like Stewart, he has just one win on the season, but it was very impressive. He won the Auto Club 500 despite starting in 31st position. He doesn't qualify particularly well, but he's aggressive on race day and gets the most out of his car. Like Johnson and Stewart, Kenseth is running well and has enough of a cushion that he should be in the Chase picture by the end of the season.
Mark Martin - The elder statesman of Nascar is impossible not to like. He's 47 and he initially wasn't even supposed to be racing in the Nextel Cup this year, but he's running like he's a man half his age right now. He hasn't won a race yet (though he came very close in the Golden Corral 500), but he's qualified well and he's made the most of it. There is nothing flashy about his driving style, and he is unlikely to win more than a race or two, but he's steady and dependable and he'll be in the Chase at the end. He'd be doing even better if other guys didn't keep wrecking him through no fault of his own.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. - There is obviously no bigger name than the man behind the wheel of the No. 8 car. He's got a win this year and five more top tens. He hasn't given himself good starting positions, cracking the top ten just twice and never threatening for a pole position, but he overcomes that on race day with a bit of the Earnhardt magic. He's not always a good bet to win, and he's been shuffling his team trying to make it work for him, but he has the resources, the talent and the name to be there for the Chase. He's consistently been offering juicy prices, too.
Jeff Gordon - He's the great divider in Nascar - either you love him or you hate him. There's no middle ground. He's a California pretty boy, which doesn't fly in the Nascar heartland, but he can drive like a demon. He won the Gatorade Duel 2, which isn't an official event, but he's yet to cross the finish line first in a points race, despite leading plenty of laps and finishing second twice. He went through a rough four-race streak a few weeks back, but two straight strong showings will have fans excited.
Kyle Busch - He's a magnet for trouble. He consistently puts himself in a position to win, then finds almost unbelievable ways to get knocked out. Truly bizarre. He's still managed three top five finishes, and he's bound to win one eventually, because a guy can't have luck like this for ever. He's running well and he offers a good price. He just turned 21 and this is only his second year on the Cup, so he'll be in lots of Chases even if he doesn't hold on to his spot this time out.
Kasey Kahne - He's the king of qualifying. He's snagged four poles, and has been near the front on a bunch of other occasions. He's turned two of those poles into wins as well, so he can bring it on race day. He has a real go-for-broke attitude, either finishing near the front or flaming out early. He's grabbed two straight poles, but his last four races have been disastrous. He's due for another breakout soon, because he's got the talent and the car to win again this year. He'll be dangerous if he makes the Chase (which he almost certainly will). A win this past weekend at the Coca-Cola 600 has him on the right track.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick either finishes in the top seven, or he crashes. He won the Subway Fresh 500 and he should have won the Crown Royal 400 two weeks later. He led 272 laps, but couldn't hold on and finished third. True to form he crashed early the next week. He's by no means a lock for the Chase because of his lack of consistency, but he is certainly a threat to win on any week. In other words, he's the kind of guy that drives bettors crazy.
Jeff Burton - He's holding on to the final qualifying spot for now, but just barely. The year has had its highlights, but it hasn't been consistently pretty by any means. He qualified no higher than 18th in seven straight races, and he has led just one lap in the last 11 races. He's finished no higher than fourth all year. He has the talent to win, but doesn't seem to have the car or the luck to pull it together this year. He can obviously still make the Chase, but it's far from a sure thing.