Saturday night's event at Richmond International Raceway took much about what we knew about this Sprint Cup season and turned it on its head. There was Juan Pablo Montoya, buried in a deep points hole, running away from the field. There was series leader Jimmie Johnson, never really a factor. There was Brad Keselowski, he of the four straight top-fives to open the year, once again battling to get back on the lead lap. There was Tony Stewart, off the radar since Daytona, elbowing toward contention.
And there was Kevin Harvick, lame-duck standard-bearer of a Richard Childress Racing organization that's underwhelmed to this point, storming from seventh to first in the final lap of a green-white-checkered finish to earn a victory that was almost as unlikely as it was dramatic. Harvick led only three laps in the event, and has led only four all season, and yet there he was in Victory Lane hugging a new trophy and taking a big step toward the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"We've had speed, and we were frustrated," he said of his year to that point. "I think all of us were frustrated, not just myself ? but I think everybody on our team. You can talk till you're blue in the face that your car is running good. People like you guys (in the media) look at the results on Monday and the points, and they weren't where we thought we should be. I think a win goes a long ways."
Indeed it does, and it's also the latest event to challenge conventional wisdom about a 2013 campaign that's becoming increasingly difficult to figure out. Sure, Johnson has a 43-point edge in the standings that comparatively is one of the biggest through nine races in 20 years. But even he has moments when he appears downright mortal, adding to an array of indicators that all seem to contradict one another. Who's good? Who's bad? Right now, who really knows?
It all makes for great fun to watch on television or from the grandstands, even if it causes headaches for anyone trying to divine true contenders from a melting pot of possibilities. No question, the unpredictability factor has been heightened in recent years by the implementation of elements like the green-white-checkered rule and the double-file restart, two things Harvick probably wouldn't have won without on Saturday night. But now there's a new car, a Generation-6 vehicle that has thrown another major variable into the mix.
The result is competition that -- Johnson's massive points lead not withstanding -- feels as wide open and unpredictable as ever, with events occurring on the race track that seem to be completely removed from what's going on in the standings. How else to explain Montoya, 27th in points and without a top-five finish in over two years, completely dominating the latter stages of a race he would have won easily had a caution flag not intervened? It's that kind of year.
Granted, statistics can be deceiving, and final results are not always a completely accurate indicator of how well a car may be running. As Harvick lectured after Saturday night's race, this can be a frustrating reality for drivers, who in the public eye are ultimately judged by the numbers. In an interview at Richmond, Jamie McMurray echoed as much in explaining why his No. 1 team was off to a promising start after what outwardly appeared to be a forgettable 2012 campaign. In his eyes, they were laying groundwork.
"On the competition side, you know more about what's going on, and all the people that are involved in it with you understand and are maybe more sympathetic toward the result and why that is," said McMurray, 12th in the standings. "But a lot of times people on the outside looking in, they look at where you finished, and that's it."
These days, though, the standings can be as difficult to decipher as Sanskrit. Consider, for example, the cases of:
-- Brad Keselowski. The reigning champion had an awesome first four races, finishing in the top five in each one. Since then, Keselowski has faced a litany of issues -- in fairness, not all of his own making -- that have left him battling to get back on the lead lap rather than contending for race wins. He's shown an amazing degree of resilience, a credit to both his mentality and how fast his car is. Again and again, he charges through traffic. But how much longer can he keep it up?
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr. Remember when Earnhardt was the points leader? That seems long ago, as does his streak of five straight top-10s to open the year. A 10th-place finish at Richmond staunched a rough stretch that saw him fall to fifth in the standings, but it all begs the question -- which is the real No. 88 team? The one before Martinsville, the one after, or somewhere in between?
-- Joey Logano. Like his Penske Racing teammate Keselowski, his standing in the points has been compromised by a penalty. But perhaps no driver has vacillated more between mediocrity and greatness more than Logano, who had a brilliant run going at Fontana until he wrecked with Denny Hamlin, and made all the right moves at Richmond to snag third. He has his moments that shine brightly, but until he can string more of them together, they remain just that.
-- Paul Menard and Aric Almirola. Everyone keeps waiting for them to fall, and they just keep hanging around. Menard is quietly (of course) off to his best start ever, even if he's led only two laps. Almirola has strung together three consecutive top-10s for the first time in his career, though he's led no laps. Penalties to other drivers have helped these two maintain Chase position, as so many still wonder if they're for real.
-- Jimmie Johnson. Yes, even Five-Time. No question, his lead is enormous, comparatively the biggest at this point since Jeff Gordon under the old system in 2007 (and we all know how that worked out). An average finish of 7.2 and no DNFs will do the job every time. Still -- has he really been challenged yet? Matt Kenseth has been saddled with a penalty, Kyle Busch has crashed two weeks in a row, Keselowski and Earnhardt have had their issues. Is Johnson really that far ahead of the field, or is his advantage inflated due to circumstances?
At this point it's difficult to tell, which is the case with so many of these guys, which can produce an event like Saturday's in which a guy without a top-five in two years can have the field covered, and a guy with all of four laps led on the season can be the winner. And goodness, we haven't even gotten to Talladega, where the unpredictability is amped up to stratospheric levels. Why not someone like Stewart, who was so great at Speedweeks, and has been AWOL ever since? If he pulls into Victory Lane on Sunday, would anyone really be surprised?
Not this year, where not everything is as it seems. After all, Saturday morning, Richard Childress Racing appeared to be an organization in search of itself. Late Saturday night, the car owner was talking title.
"I think we got a great shot of winning that championship this year," Childress said. "We just got to be there at the end of the day. They're not easy to win, championships aren't. But that's the one thing I want to accomplish. This could be the year."
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