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Chase hysteria still smoldering

There were different winners in the first seven Sprint Cup races of the season. There was parity. There was new-points-system hysteria. There was Chase for the Sprint Cup banter from the moment Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the season-opening Daytona 500.

Now, there is equilibrium. Business as usual. Whether the nuances of numerous competition changes have finally been absorbed and are in the process of being exploited by traditional power players, the series reached 13 races -- statistically relevant as the midpoint in the regular season -- with 10 different winners. And that number is unlikely to spike again.

Though it took him 12 races, six-time and defending series champion Jimmie Johnson has won to virtually assure himself a spot in the new Chase qualification system incentivizing victory. He followed up his Coca-Cola 600 win with a dominating victory at Dover to really-really lock in his berth and seems very much on the verge of a season-defining summer onslaught.

And it appears that Johnson might have been right all along -- as he scoffed at those who hoped to whip him into some premature panic about not immediately punching his Chase ticket -- that numerous drivers would advance to the elimination-style playoffs on points, not wins. With most of the series' gluttonous winners already accounted for in the win column at least once, the expectation is that they will begin doing what they do. Win a lot.

And this should continue, Johnson said, although just two of the remaining 13 regular-season races will be run on the 1.5-mile track tracks that comprised much of the schedule, even though within that stretch are two road courses, a restrictor-plate race and the oddities of Pocono and Indianapolis. Wild cards, he said, won't be so wild now.

"I would say outside of the two road course races your favorites would still be your favorites," he said. "I think the road course races open it up to a lot of drivers. ... But Michigan, Pocono, Indy, I just feel like your teams that are running well now will prevail at those tracks."

Not every team adapted quickly to changes in aerodynamics packages and in qualifying. Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus still believes they are behind in terms on new ride height limits. But the top-tier drivers are getting better at it, including Matt Kenseth, who would advance to the 16-driver Chase winless if he could hold the points lead after the 26th regular-season event at Richmond. But after leading the series with seven wins last season and being, obviously, productive enough to lead the standings without virtue of one in 2014, he should be expected to reach Victory Lane at some point.

The status quo would be very good news for the several others holding onto Chase spots on points. And it would be very good for Kurt Busch, whose win at Martinsville was an oasis in a sea of poor results amid mechanical failures and five DNFs that have left him a vulnerable 27th in points. Vulnerable in that drivers must remain in the top 30 to advance to the Chase, and vulnerable in that points serve as the tiebreaker if somehow more than 16 drivers win races. And vulnerable in that Stewart-Haas Racing has been beset by a myriad odd parts and personnel mishaps, including Sunday at Dover when Busch had a top-10 run ruined by a loose wheel and race-leading teammate Kevin Harvick had a flat tire because of an apparent valve stem break.

Sixteen different drivers won races last season. Eight of those are winless so far this season. Mathematically, that's problematic for Busch. But in reality, maybe not. It would be stunning if Kenseth does not break through at least once, but the rest of his fellow 2013 victors are in varying circumstances:

Ryan Newman -- 11th in points, a winner at Indianapolis last season, and currently in a transfer position. Richard Childress Racing has not been as successful this season with Harvick, however.

Brian Vickers -- 13th, a winner at Loudon, New Hampshire, had a costly last-place finish at Dover because of a motor problem.

Greg Biffle -- 16th in points and on the wrong side of the cut line, currently, won at Michigan last season and has two shots at the 2-mile track upcoming.

Kasey Kahne -- 18th, won twice last year, including at Pocono Raceway, site of the upcoming race Sunday, but has not displayed the high-level consistency or spark of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates.

Tony Stewart -- 21st, won last year at Dover and has claimed nearly half of his 48 Cup wins between the Memorial Day and Labor Day bookends, but SHR's inconsistencies and a recovery from his broken leg are key variables. But, he said before finishing seventh at Dover, "I don't think there is ever a point where especially with this format that you get panicked, because you don't have to be stellar in the points, you just have to get a win."

Jamie McMurray -- 23rd, won at Talladega, and showed promise by winning the All-Star Race. He's never qualified for a Chase, however.

Martin Truex Jr. -- 25th, second of two career wins came at Sonoma last year, but that was with a Michael Waltrip Racing team that nearly put him in the Chase, not a Furniture Row team that has struggled greatly this season after placing Busch in the playoffs.

And there are wild cards who could make Busch nervous. But rookie Kyle Larson, who is likely motivated to fill the new mansion he Tweeted a picture of Monday with new trophies -- and purse checks to pay the mortgage -- is already in the Chase boundary at 10th in points. His supposedly imminent first Cup win wouldn't change Busch's calculus.

Marcos Ambrose, currently 22nd but a two-time winner at Watkins Glen, could cause some agitation. And Clint Bowyer, devastated by 42nd- and 43rd-place results this season, has showed signs of regaining his three-win, series-runner-up form of 2012, as he has finishes of third and fourth recently. Bowyer was second in the standings most of last summer but started the Chase seeded 15th as a non-winner and in the aftermath of the Richmond race-manipulation scandal finished the season seventh.

Although not yet a winner, he might be in position to join what figures to be a select group in the second half of the regular season.

"We are deep enough into the season where people are kind of on their course and have the setups that they think is best under their car," Johnson said. "You won't see a lot of change, I don't think. Everybody is kind of locked in, I guess, with their speed."