The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo stage is set, this year’s qualifiers have picked their partners—including a few surprises—and here comes some good watching. Having roped at the Finals 27 times, I know what a hectic, exciting time this is for the guys who are about to rope at the Thomas & Mack and have a whole year’s wages riding on those 10 days. If you rope for a living, the NFR is your shot at a profit.

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Who’s it gonna be this year? History has proven that just about anything can happen, and with all the money up it’s anyone’s game and no one can be counted out. But just for fun, here’s who I’d take if I was a betting man. It’s easy to assume that the regular-season leaders who’ve dominated the whole year will win it all, but nothing in Vegas is ever automatically true and no lead gives anyone a lock on anything.

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My best guess is that it’ll be a gunfight between Clay Smith and Jade Corkill, and Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira for the ultimate headlines this year. I’m going to lean toward Kaleb and Junior for sentimental reasons, just because Junior’s like another son to me, but the odds between those two teams are even, in my book.

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NFR Go-Rounds

I’m going to go with Kaleb and Junior in the rounds. They can go so fast, as they proved in 2017 when they tied the 3.3-second NFR and world record in Round 9. Their run is quite a bit different from, say, Clay and Jade’s. The run Clay sets up is a little more controlled. Not that Driggers is a flat-out bomber, but that guy can really reach. And Junior’s just electric. Whose head horse will let him get to the horn at the end of the week will be a factor. It all revolves around the head horse at the Finals.

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NFR Average

I’m taking Clay and Jade in the average. I’ve always felt like the average is the big ticket and the ace in the hole in the world championship race. If you can place along and stay in the hunt, then have a shot at that big money in the average at the end, it’s a big deal on the last day. I’m going with Clay and Jade in the average, because they just rope so smart and will back off and just make a good, solid run and be 4.8 or 5 flat—which they can do all day long—if that’s what they need to do to get their goal of winning it all.

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I’m darn sure not saying that other teams can’t do it, or that they won’t. Just saying that Clay and Jade’s run is so consistent. And as fast as they can go, you can’t count Kaleb and Junior out of the average conversation, either.

Gold Buckles

A lot of the eventual outcome always seems to depend on the start you get, although Speed Williams and Rich Skelton pulled off eight straight gold buckles after going out of the average in the first round a lot of years. The world championship race always seems to come down to the last day, where there are all sorts of scenarios and basically everybody needs to win something in the round and/or the average to have a shot at the world championship.

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When it comes to winning the world, I’m going to say it’s another coin toss between those same two teams of Smith and Corkill, and Driggers and Nogueira. Those teams are so strong, and they both deserve to win it all. Those guys have all been there and knocked on the door, so there will be no rattling them and they’re going in ready for the fight. Now to make it happen.

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A lot of guys have roped good enough to be deserving of a world title—Kory Koontz, Charles Pogue, David Key and Matt Tyler, to name a few. Look how long it took Cory Petska to break the ice and get one. It’s hard to say why things work out for some and not others when it comes to winning the world. Everybody’s ready to roll. Now to see how the chips fall. 

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