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Parity prevalent in early NASCAR season

Each Sprint Cup race has featured a different winner.

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion has opened his title defense with a pair of third-place finishes and a fourth, the only driver with top fives in all three races. Seemingly then, a demarcation must exist between the champ and those who wish to unseat him.

Yet instead of feeling confident of his standing, even at this early juncture of the season, Kyle Busch believes otherwise. While satisfied with Joe Gibbs Racing's performance overall, neither he nor the team, which also fields cars for Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, have flexed week-to-week superiority.

"We have some work to do," Busch said. "There's definitely guys that are better than us. I think as a company, we're not bad. I think we're fourth to eighth -- out of all of us, that's kind of where we run and we need to get a little better to where we're the guys that can be up front and lead laps."

So if Busch and JGR aren't satisfied with the current state of their Toyotas, then surely Team Penske must feel content with Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano coming off a 1-2 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, with quasi-Penske teammate Ryan Blaney sixth.

Similar to Busch, however, Keselowski rejects any impression Penske should carry the "team to beat" label. Even if Las Vegas, a 1.5-mile oval, is similar to a bulk of tracks on the schedule including half of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff and often indicative of how an organization will perform going forward.

"Certainly the performance we showed (Sunday) with finishing 1-2 with Team Penske shows that when we get things right, we can be one of the dominant teams -- but not by a long ways," Keselowski said.

Through three races, the reality is that no one team or even a single manufacturer has established itself as the barometer the garage collectively views as the standard bearer. The Daytona 500 season-opener went to Hamlin, who drives a Toyota for JGR, followed in succession by Jimmie Johnson of Chevrolet-backed Hendrick Motorsports and Keselowski in a Penske Ford.

Although not uncommon to see a string of diverse winners in the early weeks, the current parity comes as NASCAR incorporates a widely dissimilar aerodynamic rules package and tire compound than utilized a year ago. With a car more prone to veering sideways and tires that show greater wear over long runs, drivers and crew chiefs have been challenged to find consistency.

How much fluctuation week-to-week is evident in Penske's changing fortunes from Atlanta Motor Speedway, the second race, to Las Vegas, the third event on the calendar. Neither Keselowski nor Logano contended for the win at Atlanta, with their cars clearly trailing those of JGR, Hendrick and Kevin Harvick's Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.

What was Penske's response? A 90-minute midweek debriefing -- described by Penske vice chairman Walt Czarnecki as "thorough and candid" -- and with its crew chiefs also putting in several late nights.

The efforts paid off at Las Vegas; Keselowski chased down, then took away the lead from Busch with six laps remaining to give Penske its first sweep of the top two positions since August 2014 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

"When we unloaded at Atlanta, didn't have quite the speed we were hoping for," said Paul Wolfe, Keselowski's crew chief. "That was a little frustrating. Got our cars better for the race, but still not where they needed to be to contend for wins.

"We felt like we needed more potential out of our cars. We worked very hard on some aero pieces, some different things."

But if there is one maxim thus far in 2016, it's that Penske's advantage is likely short-lived. Just as it went to work following Atlanta, other teams did the same then and since and the potential for a fourth consecutive different winner is high entering Sunday's event at Phoenix International Raceway -- especially considering Harvick has won five of the past races on the one-mile desert track.

"The hardest thing about having success is you have to have an open mind to try new things to keep moving forward," Harvick said. "If you don't have an open mind or are not willing to try a fresh approach, then it will get stagnant -- you're going to become stale and get left behind."