No room for error now
With the competition in the Nextel Cup Series so fierce, you can't really say it's surprising to see any driver among the top 10. Sure, Elliott Sadler hasn't been a perennial top 10 dweller like Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, but it's certainly no surprise to see him there right now.
But with only nine races to go before the sanctioning body freezes the championship field, there are some surprise teams on the bubble.
For Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick, ninth and 10th in points, respectively, the surprise is that they aren't safely in the championship field with a higher ranking. But Harvick hasn't won a race this season (Newman won Michigan), and both drivers will need solid runs for nine weeks to keep their spot among the coveted 10.
In spots 11 through 13 are a few surprises, too. Rookie Kasey Kahne stormed out of the gates and remains within striking distance of the top 10. Then there's Jeremy Mayfield, who's been around long enough to be called a veteran now, and who has shaken a lot of the hard luck he's experienced the past few years to knock on the door of his second-ever top 10 finish.
Either could hit a run and find himself contending for his first title.
"We've got some good tracks coming up," Mayfield said. "I feel like we're more geared up than ever. I feel like I've paid my dues. I'm headed back to the top, and it feels good to be able to do that. There's always more room for improvement, and that's something I don't ever want to forget.
"We've got to keep proving it every week, and if we do that we'll be all right. I learn something every week on how to drive these racecars. We've got to continue doing that until we get to the top."
Kahne knows it's no surprise for rookies to come in and compete for a title, anymore. He's not even sitting as pretty as Tony Stewart or Kevin Harvick or Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman were their rookie years. So he's not overjoyed about his 11th-place season. He craves more.
"We had a good first half of the season for a rookie team, but the second half of the season we've got to really get after it to get in the top 10," he said. "It's something I think about all the time. We had a goal to finish in the top 15 in the points and get the Raybestos Rookie of the Year.
"We started running so well, we know we can get in the top 15 if we do things right every week. We just need to do things right and we'll get in the top 10. Right now, we're trying hard and we're working hard, but we don't deserve to be in the top 10 in the points."
Sadler sits eighth in points and feels proud and very deserving. After putting in a ton of work last season trying to get up to speed, the team clicked from the first green flag this year.
"I am real confident in this M&M's team," he said. "... The next eight races are very big races for us. Our goal throughout the first 26 races of the season has been the same -- to stay in the top 10 in points. So far we've been able to do that and our focus remains the same -- to be consistently running inside of the top 10 when each race is over.
"We've had our ups and downs but that's always the case in racing. The guys are working hard and we feel like we are in a good position to make it into the Chase for the Championship."
For Harvick, though it's a little nerve-racking sitting so close to the edge, there is a lot of momentum. He tends to hit his stride this time of year, and especially at the track the Nextel Cup Series visits this weekend -- Chicagoland Speedway.
"A win would be great right now," Harvick said. "For some reason, we just get hot during the summertime. I don't know if it just takes us that long to get everything together or that we just seem to be better the second time around we go to some of these racetracks.
"What I do know is that Chicago has been good to me early in my career. I'd love to get another win and keep this team where we need to be, within that top 10 in points with 10 races to go so that we have a chance to make a run at that championship trophy."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.