Gordon, Busch early favorites

Good results are always important at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but this year many NASCAR Nextel Cup teams seem especially dedicated to success at Indy. Formerly known as the Brickyard 400, this year's Allstate 400 race on Aug. 7, 2005, could be pivotal in deciding who makes the cut for the Chase to the Championship, in which the top 10 teams after 26 races (and anyone within 400 points of the leader) line up for a 10-week race-off to determine the championship. A victory - or even a good run - here could be a much-needed points boost or might impart the necessary momentum to clinch a coveted spot in the Top 10 on the way to a title.

Contending for glory:

The strong ones

Some drivers already have the momentum, and a good run at the Brickyard could just about seal the championship deal. Most notable are points leader Jimmie Johnson, who has followed early victories with good finishes that off-set a few DNFs; a dominating Greg Biffle, whose team, equipment, talent and attitude are finally coming together for some positive - and consistent - results; and a surging Tony Stewart, who, fresh from another fan confrontation and a fence-climbing win at Daytona, can never be counted out despite contracting the infamous "Andretti luck" at his favorite track.

The dependables

On the points bubble and facing the possibility of not making the big show, former champion Jeff Gordon hopes to overcome season-long bad luck and equipment failure to capture a historic 5th win at the Brickyard and launch himself into the Contention Club.

Defending series champ Kurt Busch is finding it difficult to repeat, but a single victory and a handful of top 10 finishes have kept him in the hunt. Even without a win, Elliott Sadler remains in the chase by stringing together decent finishes. Led by experienced crew chief Todd Parrott, his team seems to fully grasp the importance of consistency.

Ryan "Rocket Man" Newman leads the series in poles and has set several track records along the way, but may be a victim of NASCAR's "impound rule," in which cars must race with their qualifying setup. He simply hasn't raced as well as he's qualified.

The fighters and scrappers

Harvick is turning into NASCAR's "Mr. All or Nothing." When he's strong, he's nearly unbeatable, but when the car isn't perfect, he fades. If he doesn't get distracted by taunts from Johnson and manages to avoid coming to blows with Joe Nemecheck, maybe his past Indy strength will return to carry him to another Brickyard win.

A tough veteran, Nemechek has been strong at several tracks, but hasn't achieved the consistency it takes to finish races well. He now sits 190 points on the wrong side of the cut line.

The desperate fighters

If Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't win at the Brickyard, his season may be doomed. Despite a victory at Chicago, Junior's season-long struggles seem directly related to the switch of crew chiefs, teams and cars with teammate Michael Waltrip. Both teams were obviously crafted around their drivers' personalities and the swap has been devastating.

The silverhairs

Despite media focus on NASCAR's "young guns," this year's spotlight also falls on a couple old warriors in the twilight of their careers. Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace have decided to call a halt at season's end. Both have toiled under clouds of uncertainty and adversity the past few years as their team situations have fluctuated, but now mellowed and relaxed, they're making the most of their farewell tours: backed by strong teams and running competitively every week, they cling to Top 10 spots in the standings.

The upstarts

A new barely 20-something group has arrived on the scene. Armed with boy-band good looks, fabulous driving talent and no apparent fear, rookie Carl Edwards, second year drivers Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers, and Jamie MacMurray have made some serious noise on the track and off (Edwards and Kahne have both made appearances in People Magazine's ranks of hot men). Edwards and MacMurray are comfortably in the elite group — for now.

As Martin showed at Daytona, one bad race can mean a drastic slide in position. With so much on the line, one thing is certain: the Allstate 400 should be a good race.

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