This past weekend's race at Richmond International Raceway was a weird event.
Exciting? Most definitely. It was the kind of edge-of-your-seat excitement for which NASCAR fans clamor.
Unpredictable? You bet. In fact, that was the only safe bet you could have made all night.
And, weird? Absolutely. Few of the favorites were anywhere to be found at the end of the race, and the cars that looked the strongest came out of nowhere.
- The poster driver for the race was Juan Pablo Montoya. It's the same Juan Pablo Montoya who has never won on an oval, endured a 94-race winless drought and was sponsored by, of all companies, Depend. (Yes, the adult diaper.) He entered the race sitting 27th in the standings and had led just 12 laps all season (in the March 3rd race at Phoenix).
Despite his struggles, JPM was the car to beat down the stretch. He took over the lead on Lap 330 of the 400-lap race and led the next 67 laps, all but assuring himself the win if the race stayed green. Unfortunately, a late spin by the No. 11 of Brian Vickers, a car that wasn't in contention for the win, brought out a caution and reshuffled the field.
Montoya's crew chief, Chris Heroy, made the call to pit for four tires, a decision mimicked by many, and the No. 42 still finished an impressive fourth-place. It wasn't a win, but it was still an unexpected good finish from a team that's struggled to make headlines in the last few seasons.
- Another surprise was the hard-charging Chevrolet of Kevin Harvick, which ran off with the race on a green-white-checkered finish. Harvick might have made last year's Chase, but he didn't win in 2012 until the next-to-last race of the season at Phoenix and had picked up 2013 in a similar also-ran fashion.
Through eight races, Harvick had scored four finishes of 13th, one of 12th and one of 14th, making his ninth at Las Vegas his only top-10. He certainly hadn't been out-of-sight, out-of-mind, like Montoya, but few expected that the No. 29 would have been the car coming into its own at the end of the race.
- On the flip side, it was not a good week for the drivers that had been showing signs of dominance early. Among the top four drivers in the standings entering Saturday, Jimmie Johnson finished 12th, Kasey Kahne settled for 21st, Brad Keselowski was black-flagged in 33rd and Greg Biffle sputtered home in 36th.
Kyle Busch, who had won the last four spring races at Richmond, was penalized for failing to touch his tires to the commitment line, but appealed the ruling and NASCAR revoked the penalty upon review. His good fortune was short-lived, as Tony Stewart spun into Jimmie Johnson a few laps later and Busch ran out of space, suffering significant damage by hitting Johnson as the No. 48 slid down the track. The No. 18 fought back on the lead lap, but finished 24th.
- The two leaders on the final restart had combined for a 242-race winless streak. Jeff Burton sat at 157, Jamie McMurray at 85, and both stood a chance at getting their doors blown off after making the call not to pit for tires. Burton held his own in finishing fifth, but McMurray did not. Left out to dry on the outside, he slipped from second to 26th (the last car on the lead lap) in a matter of 1.5 miles.
Imagine getting passed by 24 cars in 1.5-miles? That doesn't often happen to the slowest of slow pokes on a five-lane highway, but it happened to a Sprint Cup driver on a short track.
- The weirdness didn't even end at the checkered flag. Kurt Busch, who had a great day, was angry that Matt Kenseth had knocked him out of the race groove and bumped him after the race. As he was finishing up with the salutation, Stewart, who held the same resentment toward Busch that Busch held toward Kenseth, bumped with Busch. Busch nudged him back and the two had a quick out-of-car altercation in the garage area.
Yes, indeed. From Juan Pablo's Depend to the reigning champ's black flag to McMurray's freefall to the irony of the Busch-Kenseth, Stewart-Busch post-race bumping, last week got weird.