We're three races into the 2007 edition of the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Don't get all nostalgic just yet, even though next year we won't have the Nextel Cup, just the Sprint Cup. And we won't have the Busch Series, just the Nationwide Series.
But there's no time for that now, because we've got oh-so-much action left to go this season. I'm still refusing to believe that any of the 12 drivers involved in the Chase can be ruled out.
That's right, don't give up on Denny Hamlin or Matt Kenseth, there's still hope. Also, don't feel too comfortable with Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon. There are reasons to love, or hate, every driver's chances for a championship, even three races in.
Rank -- 12th, 248 points back
Love 'em -- Hamlin ended last season with five consecutive top-10 finishes, including back-to-back third-place runs at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami, so we could see a strong finish from the 11. Also, take a look at how he ran at some of the upcoming Chase tracks earlier this year: third at Martinsville and Phoenix, and ninth at Charlotte and Texas.
Hate 'em -- Two big numbers keep cropping up, 248 and 11. That's 248 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, and 11 drivers he has to pass if he's going to be the third driver to win a championship for Joe Gibbs Racing. He needs good finishes, but he also needs help from the other drivers.
Rank -- 11th, 219 points back
Love 'em -- Kenseth put up some impressive numbers earlier this season. He's had an average finish of 4.6 during the regular season on the 1.5-mile tracks that will make up four of the final seven races of the Chase. He also has an average finish of 7.7 earlier this season on the tracks that the series will still visit. He had a strong car at Dover and Kansas before his issues. He ran the fastest lap more often than any other driver at Dover, and the second-most fastest laps at Dover.
Hate 'em -- Kenseth has some ground to make up, and he needs wins. Problem is, he's made all four Chase for the Nextel Cups, but has yet to win a race during that time. That's 0-for-33 right there.
Rank -- 10th, 186 points back
Love 'em -- As expected, there's not a whole lot to love about Burton's chances at this point. However, there's a three-race streak coming up -- Martinsville, Atlanta and Texas -- where Burton could do some damage. He finished sixth, fourth and first at those tracks earlier this season, respectively.
Hate 'em -- That same stretch last year killed his hopes of a championship. After the first half of the 2006 Chase, Burton was leading by 45 points over Kenseth. He then promptly put up finishes of 42nd, 13th and eighth, putting him back to seventh, 184 points off the lead.
Rank -- 9th, 177 points back
Love 'em -- Busch won the first Chase for the Cup, so you have to imagine the jitters won't bother him. However, Busch never found himself this far back in his title run, with nine top-10 finishes in the Chase. Busch is capable of a similar run, however. In the nine races leading up to the Chase, Busch never finished worse than 11th.
Hate 'em -- There's a reason this is the only Dodge team in the Chase for the Cup. Problems with the new nose plagued the Dodges this year. There's a reason why we have nine Chevrolets and only two Fords and this lone Dodge in the Chase this year.
Martin Truex Jr.
Rank -- 8th, 158 points back
Love 'em -- Truex is only 158 points off the lead, which seems like a lot. But through three races in the 2006 Chase, Jimmie Johnson was also in eighth, 165 points off the lead. The question is, is Truex capable of a run of dominance like Johnson had in the last seven races last year, when he won a race and finished runner-up in four others?
Hate 'em -- Truex has never finished higher than 17th in the Cup Series points before. Each of the previous champions were previously in a Cup points battle. Johnson had a pair of second-place finishes, Stewart was a former champion and Kurt Busch was as high as third.
Rank -- 7th, 142 points back
Love 'em -- In the final seven races of 2006, Edwards never finished worse than 15th, avoiding bad finishes and putting up consistent top-10 finishes. For the entire 2006 Chase, Edwards' average finish was 9.0, better than any Chase driver during that time and even better than Tony Stewart, who was impressive in winning three races in the stretch run last year.
Hate 'em -- Edwards might have a tough run coming up. Earlier this season at Talladega, he finished 42nd, and he finished 15th at Charlotte and 17th at Martinsville. His good finishes at those tracks at the end of 2006 certainly didn't seem to carry over to this year.
Rank -- 6th, 136 points back
Love 'em -- He's a Hendrick driver, and you have to love that. Hendrick won nine races in a 10-race stretch earlier in the season. Now we'll see if Hendrick gives Busch the same going-away treatment that the team gave Brian Vickers last season, but don't forget how Vickers fared at Talladega. You also can't question Busch's motivation on his way out the door. He'd love to strap that trophy to his new Joe Gibbs Racing Camry and ride off into the sunset.
Hate 'em -- Busch's record on the upcoming tracks is, at best, dicey. In six races on the 1.5-mile tracks earlier this season, he had four finishes of 30th or worse. With four of the last seven races on intermediate tracks, he has to turn that around. He also ended 2006 with a whimper (eighth in each of the last two races at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami).
Rank -- 5th, 126 points back
Love 'em -- Harvick has finished every race this season, and besides Watkins Glen and Martinsville, he has done a good job avoiding catastrophic finishes. He's also driving a Chevrolet, which is the make to be in at this point of the year. A Chevrolet won at each of the six remaining tracks we've already run at this year.
Hate 'em -- Remember how I mentioned how Chevy has been good on the remaining tracks in the Chase this year? Well, Harvick hasn't been a part of that trend. He's got a 22.0 average finish on those tracks this year, with finishes outside the top 20 at Charlotte, Martinsville, Atlanta and Texas.
Rank -- 4th, 117 points back
Love 'em -- Stewart won the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, something that is important to him and important in the Chase. Each of the past two Cup champions also won at Indianapolis earlier in the season. The 2004 champ, Kurt Busch, finished 10th. Stewart also won last year's Chase races at Atlanta and Texas.
Hate 'em -- If you want to see Smoke take home his third championship, start sending him lucky pennies, good-luck charms and even a leprechaun if you have one. He has to avoid the bad finishes he's had this year. Stewart has finished 35th or worse five times already this season, including last week at Kansas. No Chase champion has ever had that many finishes that low. Last year, Johnson had just one. The previous year, Stewart had none.
Rank -- 3rd, 14 points back
Love 'em -- What's not to love about the way Bowyer is running right now? Picked up his first win, took a second-place finish at his home track and recovered from a wreck to finish 12th at Dover after starting 42nd. He also has finished every race this season. The past three winners of the Chase also avoided DNFs. Kurt Busch had two in 2004, Tony Stewart just one in 2005, and Johnson, like Bowyer, didn't have any coming into the Chase.
Hate 'em -- Bowyer's one win gives him momentum, but it's just one win. Every past Chase winner had multiple wins coming into the Chase, and Bowyer didn't win any in the regular season. Also, in the final seven races of 2006, Bowyer's average finish was 22.0, the worst of any of the 12 drivers in this year's Chase.
Rank -- 2nd, six points back
Love 'em -- Consistently good finishes are the way to win the Chase, and nobody can take a 15th-place car and finish fifth any better than The Kid. Gordon was actually on pace to break the Cup Series record for percentage of races finished in the top-10 earlier this season before a brief cold spell heading into the Chase. Any other questions, and I'll refer you to his four championships.
Hate 'em -- These next two races could make or break Gordon. In the past two fall Talladega races, Gordon's average finish was 36.5. In his past five races (spring and fall) at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Gordon's average finish is 33.8, with a DNF in all five races! That is deserving of an exclamation point and could have Gordon playing from behind.
Rank -- 1st, six points ahead
Love 'em -- His numbers coming into the Chase this year, six wins and 14 top-5 finishes, are better than he had coming into the 2006 Chase. How about the numbers he put up in the final six races of 2006? A win, four second-place finishes and a mere ninth at Homestead-Miami. He's the only driver to win more than once on the 1.5-mile tracks this year. But wait, there's more! He won earlier this year at Martinsville and Atlanta, where we have still yet to go, and was second at Talladega and fourth at Phoenix. Enough proof?
Hate 'em -- We've already had the Johnson lovefest, but there are reasons to doubt, as well. Serious reasons. Johnson failed to finish four races earlier this season, and no Chase driver has ever won the title with more than two DNFs in the regular season. If he puts up back-to-back DNFs, like he did at Chicago and Indianapolis, we'll be engraving a new name on the trophy this year.
But whose name will it be? You and I can make our picks based on all the information, but I'd rather sit back, grab my favorite snack and enjoy the last seven races. See ya at Homestead!
Matt Willis is a studio researcher at ESPN.