LAS VEGAS - There are seemingly as many questions surrounding who will be the 2012 World Champion as there were when the Built Ford Tough Series opened in New York in January.
However, one common belief is that this year's eventual winner is currently ranked Top 6.
That list includes Austin Meier, J.B. Mauney, Guilherme Marchi, L.J. Jenkins, Valdiron de Oliveira and Silvano Alves, who is vying to become the first back-to-back World Champion in PBR history.
Despite being on the verge of history - Alves holds a 505-point advantage over Oliveira atop the world standings - the reigning World Champion remains humble coming into the season-ending World Finals.
"I'm mainly happy that I qualified for another World Finals," said Alves, who will be competing in Las Vegas for the third consecutive year.
Alves said he's also happy to have the competition.
Jenkins, Marchi and Mauney are all between 1,145.25 and 1,567.5 points away from Alves, while Meier is 2,077.25 points off the No. 1 spot. The rest of the field - the Finals will feature the Top 35 riders in the world as well as four international invitees representing Brazil, Australia, Canada and Mexico - is 3,000 or more points back.
There are a maximum of 5,500 points available at the World Finals.
Only the Top 14 have a mathematical chance of winning. Five of them - Robson Palermo, 10; Luke Snyder, 11; Ryan Dirteater, 12; Harve Stewart, 13, and Mike Lee, 14 - trail by more than 5,000 points and could be eliminated from contention if they don't ride in the opening round on Wednesday.
Despite the eight riders on the outer fringes, the Top 6 are well within contention.
In fact, Jenkins predicted, "I think all of us are going to be in it."
Oliveira agreed, "All the guys have a chance, but my confidence is back. It's not done for me. This is my dream."
Truth be told, it's everyone's dream.
And each of them feels as though they have a chance to win the gold buckle and the $1 million bonus that comes with it.
"I like it because it still gives me a shot," said Mauney, who led for a portion of the season until he broke a bone in the top of his left riding hand. He switched to using his right hand and managed to cover three bulls, which has kept him from being more than 2,000 points back coming into the season-ending event.
"I still think in my head I have a fighting chance to win it just as good as any of those guys do," said Mauney, who, like Jenkins, has won the Finals event average in the past.
"When they back me in a corner I kind of like it. It puts pressure on me and then you have to come out swinging."
Alves, who had a larger lead over the second place competitor last year than he does over the entire Top 6 this time around, said he's glad to have competition.
When asked if he felt battle-tested, Alves replied, "I'm ready to go."
In fact, he said the Finals are simply another bull riding event.
Like Alves, Jenkins has been anticipating this year's trip to the Thomas & Mack Center.
"I've been ready for it and I'm looking forward to it," said Jenkins, who is mentally focused on the next six rounds of competition. "I think it's going to be one of the greatest Finals that we've seen."
"I think it's going to be one of the greatest Finals that we've seen," said L.J. Jenkins.
Matchups, healthy, confidence and well-being are keys to success.
Oliveira is hobbled by a herniated disc in his back that has prevented him from competing in recent rounds, but he finished fifth in average last weekend in Columbus, Ohio, and third a week earlier in Philadelphia.
Mauney is battling several injuries, but continues to downplay their impact despite. He twisted his right knee and sprained his MCL when he was thrown from his Round 2 bull in Columbus. He'll be competing with a knee brace.
Jenkins has been more or less been fighting his head.
Six of the 14 bulls he's bucked off since the break have come after the six-second mark. Last week, he said, he was riding well, but has what he described as missed opportunities when he gets bucked off near the whistle.
"I wish somebody could have come in here and got it closed out, like myself, before the Finals," Jenkins explained, "but it's going to come down to who shines at the Finals."
Oliveira, who was atop the standings more this year than any other rider until giving way to Alves, proclaimed, "Oh yeah, I'm confident right now.
"I'm on my way. I'm going to win."
Follow Keith Ryan Cartwright on Twitter @PBR_KRC.
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