With six weeks left in the long seasons of NASCAR's three national touring series, it's time to check in on some of the top storylines currently percolating.
Let's start with the obvious, and that's the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Yes, Jimmie Johnson is in the thick of it after winning Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway. But let's not say he's "back in it." He never left.
The five-time defending champion's calm and light demeanor immediately following his second-place finish a week earlier at Dover foretold of a win in his near future. You could argue -- and he likely would agree -- that he should have won the race that Kurt Busch took instead because Busch clearly out-raced him on the final two restarts.
Johnson made mistakes at Dover. But he quickly atoned for them at Kansas, winning in dominating fashion and moving to within a mere four points of Chase points leader Carl Edwards with six races remaining. Next up: this Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, one of Johnson's favorite venues.
The debate that's long been out there is whether or not it would be good for someone else to win the Chase and break Johnson's stranglehold on the championship. An argument easily can be made that it would be better for Edwards or Kevin Harvick (currently second, only one point out of first) or even a total breath of fresh air such as Brad Keselowski (third at Kansas, fourth in the points and only 11 behind Edwards) to win it all.
But in reality, no matter what happens, doesn't NASCAR already have exactly what it wants? Don't the fans have what they want?
They have a tight race heading down the stretch involving not just the defending champion, but several others (don't forget that the silent killer Matt Kenseth is still lurking in fifth, just 12 points off the lead, and that Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch are all within 20 points of Edwards as well).
There is drama. The fact that Johnson is putting up a staunch defense of his latest title only adds to it. Certainly it does not detract from it.
And if he is to win a sixth consecutive championship, so what? That not only shouldn't take away from what has been an outstanding season of overall competition on the track, but should be celebrated all around because it's not going to come easily. Someone is going to have to beat him to win it, because he's obviously not going to give it away -- and that's the way it should be.
On the Nationwide Series side, just four races remain and it's obviously boiled down to a two-man battle between young upstart Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and veteran Elliott Sadler.
There are two points to make here. One, to be brutally honest, Sadler doesn't deserve to win the championship if he doesn't win at least one of the four remaining races to put some heat on Stenhouse.
With 11 top-five finishes and 21 top-10s over the first 30 races, Sadler has been amazingly consistent. But he hasn't won a single race yet. He's been more consistent than everyone else in the series -- except for Stenhouse, who has 14 top-fives and 22 top-10s to go along with two victories at Iowa Speedway.
You want more evidence of how tough it's going to be for Sadler with only four races remaining? Stenhouse has ripped off four consecutive finishes of eighth or better in the past month as the pressure has mounted. Not only that, but he has 10 consecutive finishes of 11th or better on oval tracks, with his only problems since mid-summer coming on road courses.
There are no road courses left on the Nationwide schedule, which dovetails into the second point to be made here.
Is it time for the Nationwide Series to introduce some kind of Chase format (which could use a road course in it)? Sadler was passionate in saying yes to that question over a month ago at Richmond, and he's right. It would help produce the same drama that's currently unfolding in Cup but is noticeably missing on the Nationwide side.
With five races remaining on the 2011 Camping World Truck Series schedule, the truckers head off to Las Vegas for a standalone event this Sunday.
Austin Dillon, who held his own pretty well in his Sprint Cup debut last Sunday at Kansas, is the series leader by three points over James Buescher. Johnny Sauter sits in third, 19 points behind -- and two other Truck veterans, Timothy Peters and the surging Ron Hornaday, a four-time series champion, are within 42 points of the lead.
Whereas in Cup it would be nearly impossible to make up a 40-plus points deficit in five races, Peters or Hornaday may be able to do it because they have fewer drivers in front of them who need to have bad days while they're having great ones. So they remain long shots, but well worth watching.
Meanwhile, it's nice to see some new names at the top of the standings, starting with Dillon and Buescher. Like Sadler on the Nationwide side, Buescher has yet to win a race while Dillon has won two -- so until Buescher wins a race, it's hard to say he deserves the championship.
But at least he's in the conversation. At least there is a conversation.
And this Saturday, they're racing in Vegas, baby. With the Cuppers going Saturday night in Charlotte and the Nationwide guys battling Friday at the same venue, the Truckers will have the Saturday afternoon Vegas stage all to themselves. Wouldn't it be far more interesting if, they too, were in the thick of a heated Chase format to determine their champion?