1 WHO IS THE FAVORITE FOR THE CUP?
Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champ, looks to be right on track to take Cup number 6 in November. Currently third in the standings, he already has two victories (only Brad Keselowski, with three, has more), and he's the only driver in the series who doesn't have a weak track in the Chase. And, oh, yeah, he knows how to close the deal.
2 IS DALE EARNHARDT JR. A REAL CONTENDER?
NASCAR's most popular driver is having his best season since 2004. He snapped a 143-race winless streak, he's second in points and tied with Jimmie Johnson for most top 10s (13). To beat JJ and earn his first Cup, Junior will likely need at least two wins in the Chase. That's a tall order, but he's now positioned to use the next nine races to hone his Chase setup and give himself a shot.
3 WHO WILL BE THE CHASE WILD-CARDS?
After the first 26 races the top 10 drivers in the standings make the Chase. Wild-card spots go to the two drivers in 11th through 20th with the most wins. Kyle Busch (car 18), currently 12th, with one win, and Kasey Kahne (5), 14th, with a victory, have both endured horrendous luck this season yet are still in the hunt. Both are also poised for strong stretch runs to the Chase.
4 IS DANICA PATRICK GETTING UP TO SPEED?
Absolutely. While Patrick, running her first full-time NASCAR season in the Nationwide Series, isn't contending for victories, she now appears far more comfortable behind the wheel. In her last eight races she has finished 13th or better five times. Patrick is right on schedule to move to the Sprint Cup series in 2013 and drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.
5 WHAT HAPPENED TO CARL EDWARDS?
Edwards ended 2011 tied in points with Tony Stewart, losing the title only on a tiebreaker. (Stewart had five wins, Edwards one.) But this year Edwards has taken a shocking step back. He has just eight top 10s and after a 20th at Kentucky last Saturday sits 11th in points. Unless he can shake the emotional hangover from coming so close last year, his season may slip away.
WALTER G ARCE/ASP/CAL SPORT MEDIA (JOHNSON)
JEFF SINER/CHARLOTTE OBSERVER/MCT/LANDOV (EARNHARDT)
DAVID J. GRIFFIN/ICON SMI (BUSCH AND KAHNE)
CRYSTAL A MACLEOD/ASP/CAL SPORT MEDIA (PATRICK)
DAVID J. GRIFFIN/ICON SMI (EDWARDS)