Personnel changes have brought parity to Victory Lane in NASCAR
Six different drivers have hit Victory Lane in the first seven Cup races this year
Movement within Cup means teams have harder time gaining distinct advantage
They haven't won yet, but Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. might be poised to soon
Kyle Busch last won a NASCAR Sprint Cup race in August 2011. Carl Edwards hasn't won in more than a year. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s winless drought dates to 2008.
Yet there is hope for them and others as the series heads to Kansas Speedway this weekend. Six different winners in this season's first seven races (Tony Stewart is the only repeat victor) provides that optimism and follows a season that had 18 different winners in 36 races.
So what's going on?
A power shift has taken place in the sport. Balance has replaced dominance. With the competition so close, one move can lead to Victory Lane or drop a team to the back of the pack.
In the last 62 races, dating to Daytona in July 2010, Roush Fenway Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing each has won a series-high 11 races. Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing are next with 10 each. Penske Racing and Hendrick Motorsports both have six victories. Earnhardt Ganassi has three wins, and no other team has more than one.
Matt Kenseth wondered before this season how downsizing from four to three teams -- and losing some personnel -- would impact Roush's organization. He noted that former crew members working elsewhere carried the knowledge of what worked at Roush, so "if you do have any kind of an advantage, you probably lose a little bit of that.''
So far this season Roush has managed. Kenseth won the Daytona 500 and Greg Biffle hit Victory Lane Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway to snap a 49-race winless streak. Edwards, who nearly won the title last year, has yet to lead a lap this season.
Stewart-Haas Racing, which added Greg Zipadelli as competition director in the offseason, has thrived with three victories this season yet was not competitive with either of its cars at Texas. Stewart has won twice with new crew chief Steve Addington.
Joe Gibbs Racing partnered with Toyota Racing Development on race engines and has won with Denny Hamlin, who has Darian Grubb as his new crew chief. Busch and teammate Joey Logano, though, remain winless this year.
So who will be the next driver to win his first race of the season? Here are five to consider and all could win this weekend.
• Jimmie Johnson. Once a regular in Victory Lane, Johnson has two wins in his last 51 starts. While that would make a career for some, that's a drought to Johnson, who once averaged a win about every five starts from 2004 to '10.
He was poised to win at Martinsville before he was spun on a late restart and led late at Texas until Ryan Newman's lapped car stalled Johnson's momentum, allowing Biffle to close and get by.
Johnson won at Kansas last fall and is one of four drivers who have finished in the top 10 in both 1.5-miles races this season (Las Vegas and Texas). Johnson finished second in both races.
"We've been really close over the last five or six months,'' he said. "You look through last year even through different points, [we were] leading a lot of races and didn't execute at the end for whatever reason. It's nice to be running well. It's nice to be in this position. But I want to get back to our winning ways really soon.''
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. He was strong at Las Vegas, finishing 10th partly because of a pit call that backfired and left Earnhardt mired in traffic the rest of the race. Another sign of his strength is that he finished third at Auto Club Speedway, a 2-mile oval where horsepower and aerodynamics are important. While his 10th-place finish at Texas might be easy to overlook, consider what Earnhardt said afterward.
"The setup we ran we've never ran before,'' he said. "And it's extremely unique compared to what we typically run at this place [Texas]. And we didn't fare as well as our teammates did who were on the standard things that we normally run. We'll probably kind of go back and work on what's been working.
"We'll have to test it somewhere and work on it some more and see if it's got any promise, but we're just trying to get better and trying to get to where we can win races and you've got to go out and try things and do things. You can't keep doing the same things and expect to get better. So we're just trying to do better."
• Martin Truex Jr. While Michael Waltrip Racing's last win came in 2010, this organization has been building.
The team was inconsistent at Las Vegas and Auto Club Speedway in years past, placing only one of its three cars in the top 10 in each event before Truex finished sixth and teammate Mark Martin was third at Texas Saturday night.
"Every time we'd tighten it up, we would lose a ton of grip and not gain rear,'' Truex said after Saturday night's race. "Just could never get it perfect. Still, even with that, it was a second- or third-place car, at worst.''
This is a new phenomenon for Truex and MWR. This was an organization that seemed to find ways to lose races but now is moving closer to what it takes to win. Dating to late last season, Truex has three top-10 finishes in the last four races on 1.5-mile speedways. His return to Victory Lane for the first time since 2007 could be coming very soon.
• Kevin Harvick. He seemed set for a top-five run Saturday, at least until a slow pit stop cost him several spots and he couldn't get back to the front. If this team can eliminate such issues, he has the car to contend for victories. He did finish sixth at Kansas last year, marking his third consecutive finish of 11th or better there.
"The good thing is we have had speed in the car every week,'' Harvick said. "We hadn't put it all together but the cars have been fast enough.''
• Carl Edwards. It is surprising that he's yet to lead a lap this season. Still, it's hard to discount him because of how well Roush cars run at 1.5-mile tracks. Kansas Speedway carries as much importance to Edwards, a Missouri native, as Daytona does to his competitors. He has five consecutive top-10 finishes at Kansas.
"There would be no bigger win on the circuit than Kansas for me,'' Edwards said.
Every driver will be vying for the win at Kansas, but only one will hit Victory Lane. Don't be surprised if the driver celebrating Sunday is doing so for the first time this year.