Three races into the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the faces at the top of the leaderboard are pretty similar to the last few years.
While the names remain the same, the action on the track is different. And it's better, in the eyes of most.
For the first time in years, a driver with a fast car is capable of passing cars and driving through the pack. On long runs, genuine battles develop as the handling of some cars improves throughout a fuel run, while it deteriorates on others.
Yes, genuine racing has returned to the Cup Series. Just ask Las Vegas winner Brad Keselowski, who thanks to the 2016-spec low-downforce aero package was able to recover from a pit-lane speeding penalty to get back into contention.
Keselowski was then able to methodically work from third to first in the final green-flag stint, passing his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano and finally defending Cup Series champion Kyle Busch in the closing laps to claim his first Cup race win in nearly a year.
"The new rules package today, I thought, was tremendous," Keselowski said. "I think you saw, because of the rules package, where the cars fell off a lot at the end of the run and you really had to drive them sideways.
"It took a lot of balance as a driver, a lot of precise footwork and accuracy with where you put your car, how you place it, which is exactly what we want," he continued. "This shouldn't be easy. This is the Sprint Cup Series. These cars should be very hard to drive. The cars probably had a little bit too much grip and lack of throttle response early in the run. But late in the run they seemed to settle out very nicely, sliding around, allowing various talents to fall in line.
"I thought it was a really good balance."
While the changes to a shorter rear spoiler and front radiator pan put more control of the cars back into the hands of the driver, the same teams that have dominated the Cup Series for the last few years remain the pacesetters.
The difference is those drivers were able to pass each other.
"I never saw the leader really check out and go away, which was pretty cool -- to be able to see some more racing, some passing for the win there at the end with Brad," observed Logano. "It was cool to see him come from third. I think the package is awesome.
"I don't think there's one that's head and shoulders above everyone," he added. "I feel like we're definitely in the hunt of it, for sure. But you see the typical guys up there -- Stewart‑Haas, Hendrick and the Gibbs guys."
The four top teams combined to lead all but four of the 267 laps, but those lead laps were fairly evenly split among four drivers. Jimmie Johnson, considered the favorite by many prior to the race, led the most with 76.
Unlike Keselowski, Johnson was unable to move forward when it counted at the very end.
"Track position was pretty important," Johnson noted. "The series of events leading up to that last restart kind of had us deeper in track position than we needed to be for the win. We still got a third, which is good, but those top three or four cars were pretty equal.
"It was just real hard to get there and get inside of somebody," he said. "I was impressed the 2 [Keselowski] was able to sit behind the 22 [Logano] that long and finally get by and not wear his stuff out in the process."
Busch took the lead on a late restart with a spectacular move where he shot from sixth to first. But his car performed better on short runs than it did in the 35-lap green flag run to the finish.
Once Keselowski got past Logano into second place after about 25 laps of trying, he quickly closed on Busch and made the winning pass with six laps remaining.
"We have some work to do," said Busch. "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 -- 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.
"Yeah, we led laps today, but Matt [Kenseth] being a leader got passed and me being a leader got passed under green flag, so we're just not good enough."
Most of the drivers remain strongly in favor of the new downforce package. But several of them warned NASCAR that it will need to work hard and possibly make additional downforce reductions as teams adapt to the new package.
"The challenge is for NASCAR that we've got all these race teams spending millions of dollars to develop the aerodynamics on the cars because there's such a competitive advantage to finding more downforce, finding more side force, and reducing the drag on the cars," said Keselowski. "It will only take us about half a year to a year's time to where we remove all the benefits that this package has given the racing to showcase a day like we saw today with a lot of passing for the lead.
"I think the challenge for NASCAR is just to continue to stay ahead of that with segments and changes, knowing that the teams will continue to develop," he added. "The next piece to go with that is somehow trying to convince NASCAR to do one more step, and I think the racing will get even better like we saw today."