RIR yields surprising standings shuffle

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Racin' faced long odds Saturday night.

Less than two hours before the green flag fell at Richmond International Raceway, a 50-to-1 shot stormed through on the rail to win the Kentucky Derby going away. And just as the Sprint Cup crowd began turning left in anger, the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls began Game 7 of their first-round NBA playoff epic.

Could NASCAR begin to compete?

Well, if you're intrigued by a brain-cramped champion, his hurting teammate and a fizzled subplot, perhaps the answer is yes.

Especially since those slacking Bulls and Celtics couldn't muster a single overtime on the heels of Thursday's three-OT ironman.

Kyle Busch won this 400-lap wreck-fest, a just result to be sure. His No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was on-point throughout.

Countless gigabytes were spent during the week wondering how Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. would behave in close quarters after their two skirmishes at RIR last year.

We'll never know.

While Busch quickly established himself as a contender, Earnhardt loitered mid-pack throughout the evening, never giving the masses cause to get rowdy. He finished a lap down in 27th.

One of Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Jimmie Johnson, had won three of the past four Cup races at Richmond and he's the three-time defending Cup champion. But for about an hour, Johnson drove like he'd been slurping Jell-O shooters with the faithful in the parking lot.

First, NASCAR flagged him for speeding on pit road — the limit is 40 mph, and there is no court of appeals, or 9-you're-fine, 10-you're-mine mentality.

Then Johnson spun out without provocation, prompting a caution. Finally, he restarted in the wrong position, again drawing a penalty flag from NASCAR.

Say hello to a season-worst 36th place and a drop from third to sixth in points.

History says if you depart Richmond in May inside the playoff cutoff (top 12), you're golden. In the five years of NASCAR's playoffs, 79.6 percent of the drivers within the window following the spring race qualified for the Chase come September.

The only year that more than two spots changed was 2005, when four did.

So who's most vulnerable? How will the contenders stand when they return here Sept. 12 for the final regular-season race?

Well, Matt Kenseth and Johnson are the only drivers to make all five Chases. Johnson is a lock for a sixth, but not so Kenseth — he won the season's first two races but has nosedived to 12th place in points.

Adding to the intrigue, no fewer than four former playoff drivers outside the top 12 harbor realistic hopes of elbowing their way in: Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, Earnhardt, and Kevin Harvick.

Crazy as it sounds, the wild card is Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup champion who supplanted Kurt Busch atop the standings with an eighth-place effort.

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