It’s all about the back number.

In less than a week, the contestant roster for this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) will be decided.

The culmination of a year ‘s worth of bumps and bruises, highs and lows, victories and disappointments can all come down to one ride or one run. Last week, steer wrestler Casey Martin, from Sulphur, La., was one of the many contestants jockeying for a spot in the top 15 to secure his fifth consecutive NFR qualification. He was 19th in the world standings and his bid for another trip to Vegas was looking bleaker by the day.

Martin, however is always optimistic and had an ace up his sleeve. The Pendleton (Ore.) Round-Up was coming up and he had won the tile on the grass in 2008, 2011 and again last year. The rodeo features a long head-start for cattle and is as wild and western as it gets. Timed-event contestants can’t see their animals when they nod their head and depend on someone behind them yelling as the steer or calf progresses up the alleyway and out of the chute.

Then, horses run across a dirt track and onto grass for the cowboys to make their moves. While the rodeo is steeped in 105 years of tradition, it is a far cry from the groomed dirt and short head starts that are seen on a regular basis.

It is a rodeo that many contestants, including Martin look forward to every year for just those reasons. Never one to cave under pressure, he nearly won it again this year but finished second behind the 2013 world champion, Hunter Cure from Holliday, Texas. Martin collected $8,975 in Pendleton and an additional $1,733 in Pasadena, Texas, jumping up to 13th in the world standings.

“I’m feeling better about my chances now, but I’m not comfortable yet,” Martin said. “If it all works out we will have another family vacation in Las Vegas.”

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Shane Hanchey at the Pendleton Round-Up. Photo by Dan Hubbell

Their vacations can get a little hectic with competition, autograph signing parities and hauling around the family. Casey and his wife Shawna have six children. He is one of nine kids and some of his siblings along with his parents will also make the trip.

Martin’s neighbor, Shane Hanchey, the 2013 world champion tie-down roper also finished in second place at Pendleton and again the money was critical. Prior to Pendleton, he was 18th in the world standings. He earned $6,026, what should have been enough to put him in the top 15.

This year’s tie-down roping is one of the tightest events in rodeo and while Hanchey should have moved up, he actually moved down to 19th place, but narrowed the gap and is only $1,952 behind the man in 15th place, his traveling partner, Clint Robinson from Spanish Fork, Utah.

With the Justin Boots Playoffs in Omaha, Neb., this weekend, a Wrangler Champions Challenge event there as well and numerous rodeos across the country, none of the bottom positions in tie-down roping (or any event for that matter) are safe. Only $5,347 separates 13th through 19th so there could be a lot of shake-ups in the standings.

“This is never a position that anyone wants to be in,” Hanchey said. “I’ve always paid attention to the bottom few holes, but I’ve never had to pay this much attention. Sterling Smith is 13th this week and next week he could be 19th.”

There are similar situations in every event. It’s hard to imagine an NFR without Cody Wright, the elder of the brothers and first of the family to qualify. He’s been there 12 consecutive years and earned two world titles along the way.

During the seventh round of last year’s competition, he dislocated his shoulder and was transported to the hospital to have it put back in place. He spent part of the next three performances in the Justin Sportsmedicine room. He had surgery on the shoulder after the NFR and missed about three months of competition.

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Casey Martin at the Pendleton Round-Up. Photo by Dan Hubbell

He came back and traveled with his brother Spencer, and son Rusty, who is second in the world standings behind Cody DeMoss. Thanks to earning $10,118 last week, Cody Wright is now in 20th and just $7,734 out of 15th, a position that is being held by another two-time world champion Chad Ferley.

If the last week of rodeo is kind to Cody Wright and he moves into the top 15, he and his son, will be the first father-son duo to make an appearance in the Thomas and Mack Arena competing against each other. Cody’s brothers Jake and Spencer (the reigning world champion) have a lock on a trip to Vegas in December. Jake is in eighth place and thanks to a win in Pendleton, Spencer has moved up to 10th. Last year Spencer entered the competition in 13th place, earned $145,123, the average title and the gold buckle.

Also on the bubble is the 2012 world champion, Jesse Wright, who is Jake’s twin and has five consecutive qualifications. He is in 17th place and needs at least $6,000 to move up. Thanks in part to success at five different rodeos last week, CoBurn Bradshaw from Beaver, Utah, moved up to 14th.

Bradshaw was the 2014 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association champion. He finished second two times at the National High School Finals Rodeo and third once. Two of those times he was behind Rusty Wright who is the nephew of Bradshaw’s wife, Rebecca. Bradshaw actually proposed to the Wright brother’s sister while at the Utah High School Finals.

“It’s great to have so much family involved in rodeo. We have a big support system,” Cody said. “I really want to compete in Las Vegas, but if that doesn’t work out I’ll have plenty of people to cheer for.”

One thing is for certain this last week of the regular season. Contestants will be paying attention to the standings and will be getting out their calculators and trying to figure out just what it is going to take to have one of the coveted back numbers competitors wear.

“I’ve had a lot of people calling or texting me,” Hanchey said. “I tell them all that it’s all part of the plan and what’s meant to be is meant to be. I just want a back number because of how the money is at this year’s NFR. It’s coming down to the last four days of my season.”

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