After three races in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, one thing that we've learned is that there's no definitive favorite yet for the title. While a few racers' chances to win the crown may be dwindling, a lot could happen between Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway and the season finale at Homestead-Miami next month.
A lot of the usual favorites are within striking distance of the points lead, with just one bad race serving as the difference maker between who has a shot at the Cup and those who will have to wait until next year.
Fuel mileage has been a big storyline thus far in the Chase, with Chicagoland and Loudon's outcomes being determined between the drivers who can make the finish and those who run out of fumes. Essentially, it's a microcosm of their regular season, as the 10 races truly define a driver and team's will and mettle to win it all when the stakes are high.
Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway (Live at 2 PM ET on ESPN) should be no different, as fuel mileage could very well be a pivotal factor in deciding the race winner.
All signs could point to a Tony Stewart victory again, as he's somewhat mastered this aspect of racing proficiently down the stretch.
Then again, it could be a race where handling and horsepower will also play a huge role with the outcome of the 400-miler, where in that case, racers like Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson could very well be looking at major point gain opportunities.
With that said, the only certainty about the race is this: it'll certainly be the most exciting race yet of the Chase!
Here's a quick look at the 12-driver field, of course, with the opinions and thoughts of each driver just by this writer, and not representative of the drivers and teams themselves! While it is not listed in the same standings orders, each week, we'll analyze the field in this style.
The Early Favorites
Kevin Harvick: OK, so he's not off to the most stellar of starts in this year's Chase, but when your worst finish is a 12th after three races, that's not too shabby.
Right now, he makes the cut for this portion of the "power rankings" simply because of how he's been resilient all season long. With four wins and an average finish of 11.2, it might be that kind of consistency that finally nets him that elusive first championship.
That said, he didn't exactly reinvent the wheel here in June by placing 11th, but then again, this team is capable of reeling off a strong performance at any given track.
Carl Edwards: It's not secret that the Columbia, MO native has been relatively quiet all year long, but it's the kind of sneaky performance that's gotten him to share the points lead with Kevin Harvick.
Right now, Harvick gets the nod ahead of Edwards because he's been able to nab victories more often than "Concrete Carl."
Then again, with finishes of fourth, eighth, and third in this year's Chase, it's that kind of scary quiet performance which could make him like the "Kurt Busch of 2004." Edwards placed fifth at Kansas in June, which is the kind of race he'll need to duplicate this Sunday.
Tony Stewart: Call him Smoke, Mr. Fuel Mileage, or two-time Cup champ, but Stewart has been off to a fast start - well, sorta.
See, he's got those two wins in the beginning of the Chase, which got him to sit in the points lead up until last Sunday's race at Dover.
There, the ugliness from the No. 14 Chevy team was on full display. With a car that wasn't handling right, the usually strong racer looked mortal, as he placed 25th, a performance that somewhat stalled his momentum.
Can Smoke get it back together this weekend? Well, as long as he's still got his eyes on this year's cherished prize, there's more than 14 reasons to believe he's still got a shot at this title.
Jimmie Johnson: There folks, are you unhappy now? With a runner-up finish last Sunday at Dover, the man who Yahoo! Sports affectionately calls "Vader" has started his imperial march to the center of attention in the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit.
Yes, there's still somewhat dogged on consistency and haven't shown much flashes of brilliance in winning multiple races like Brad Keselowski did in August. Then again, Dover was a statement by Johnson and his No. 48 team - they're not finished yet.
With a seventh-place result last June at Kansas, all signs point to another strong performance and perhaps a second win at this track.
Matt Kenseth: The No. 17 team is probably hoping that the Chase opener at Chicagoland doesn't come back to haunt them. Why?
If you throw away that race from their Chase efforts, they've got two excellent showings with a sixth atLoudon and a fifth at Dover. All of those performances are screaming title contender into the ears of racing fans across the country.
Then again, Kenseth hasn't been back to Victory Lane since the spring Dover race this past May, and that kind of dryspell hasn't exactly "lit the world on fire." However, he placed sixth here back in June, which if he duplicates on Sunday, will definitely be a clutch performance for the '03 champ.
Jeff Gordon: Last Sunday's race at Dover was a test of survival for the four-time Cup titlist, who didn't exactly nudge his way forwards with a 12th-place effort.
Suddenly, the hottest racer during the summer stretch has cooled off somewhat in the fall, with a 24th at Chicagoland and a fourth at Loudon as his other results. Inconsistency has hurt the No. 24 team's effort and if they don't get their act together at Kansas, it could very well be the beginning of the end of their championship quest.
Brad Keselowski: Mr. August is looking to start the month of October on a hot note to the tune of a victory at Kansas this Sunday.
If BK-2 is able to pull off the same feat he accomplished back in June, look out, folks. Dover somewhat hurt their title efforts, as he placed 20th after coming home fifth and second atChicagoland and Loudon.
No worries quite yet for this year's newest superstar driver, as he's got the potential to flip that switch from middling to frontrunner at any time.
Kurt Busch/Kyle Busch: The story of the Brothers Busch continues with this Sunday's race at Kansas, where the older and more experienced Kurt's off to a strong start while the younger and bolder Kyle has somewhat looked lost.
Finishes of 22nd and 11th don't exactly scream Cup contender for Kyle Busch, but a sixth-place at Dover helped somewhat. However, they can't afford another terrible off-week performance or else they can kiss the title "adieu."
As for Kurt Busch, last Sunday's win at Dover helped tremendously. He's got a sixth at Chicagolandbut a 22nd at Loudon somewhat slowed the No. 22 Dodge team's effort a bit. It's probably no secret that the Penske team's stepping it up because they just love hearing a meltdown late in a race...
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: Right now, the No. 88 team is this close to dropping down to Chase Filler status because of the fact that they've not exactly been impressive since the opener at Chicagoland with a third-place effort.
Finishes of 17th and 24th have stalled the Earnhardt Express and its final stop might just be at Kansas unless they can duplicate their June performance, where they came home in second spot.
Ryan Newman/Denny Hamlin: What more can be said about these two really talented drivers? Yes, they're amazing and great racers but in all honesty, it's all about preparing for 2012 for the rest of the Chase for these struggling efforts.