Richmond International Raceway signifies the quarter mark of the Sprint Cup season, and by now it's clear who the contenders and pretenders are this year. The usual suspects—former champions like Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth—are running up front and chasing many of the victories.
Except something funny happened at Richmond: Somebody else won. In fact, not only did Kevin Harvick win, a trio of drivers on the fringes of the top 20—Kurt Busch, Juan Montoya and even Jeff Burton—had chances to pull it off.
Truth be told, as much as we get the feeling we know who's going to win it all this year, Richmond proved that we have no idea. Just check out this list of winners and losers if you need proof.
Was Harvick supposed to be a lame-duck driver in his final year at Richard Childress Racing? Because that charge to the front in the green-white-checkered finish sure didn't seem like it came from a driver without much to race for.
After jetting from seventh to first in the final lap, Harvick scored his 20th career Sprint Cup victory and now sits ninth in points.
A fourth-place finish for Montoya should actually be cause for celebration given his team's struggles over the past year. However, to lose in such a heartbreaking fashion—leading until a Lap 396 caution for Brian Vickers in a scheduled 400-lap race—means that it's hard to provide much consolation for the ex-CART champion. After all, he's still 25th in points.
Bowyer has become the de facto favorite at Richmond (sorry, Denny Hamlin) after finishing second in Saturday night's race. He also took a victory at the short track in the final race before last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, leading him to make a thrilling 10-race run before finishing second in the championship.
So much for that win at Kansas. The severity of Kenseth's penalties is almost unfathomable—the 50 points and potential six-race moratorium on owners' points enough to torpedo any long-term momentum.
But just as bad is the fact that despite winning his second consecutive pole and leading a race-high 140 laps, Kenseth could only muster a seventh-place finish.
Nobody is going to confuse Busch now with Busch in his early days at Roush Racing, but when things don't go wrong, the No. 78 team has blossomed into a contender. The 2004 champion led 36 laps on the way to a ninth-place finish on Saturday, climbing to 20th in points.
His three top-10s this year are as many as Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin combined.
What a weekend for Busch, who couldn't follow up his victory in Denny Hamlin's Short Track Showdown with a good finish in the Sprint Cup race. Everything went wrong after Lap 300, when NASCAR gave Busch a penalty for pitting outside the box, extending a caution flag to review the call (and eventually rescinding it).
But moments later, he was caught up in a wreck between Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, ending all chances at victory; he would briefly lose a lap before battling back to 24th.
Burton isn't the driver he was a decade ago, his decline steep enough that he may lose his Richard Childress Racing seat to Austin Dillon next season. But he nearly pulled off an unlikely victory after leading the field to a green-white-checkered finish, eventually yielding to teammate Kevin Harvick.
Still, fourth place isn't half bad for Burton, who now sits 19th in points.
A midrace accident knocked Keselowski out of contention for a solid night at Richmond. The good news is that the resulting 33rd-place run marked his second finish outside the top 10 all season; the bad news is that he fell to sixth in points (although if his team's appeal of its Texas penalties is successful later this week, he'll climb back to second as 25 points are returned to him).
It doesn't matter that Johnson had an accident, never led and didn't finish in the top 10. He still extended his points lead from 37 after Kansas to 43, about a full race over second-place Carl Edwards. At this rate, his lead the next time the Cup drivers visit Richmond will be in the triple digits.
The season from hell continues for the three-time Sprint Cup champion, whose accident with Jimmie Johnson turned what could have been a top-10 run into an 18th-place finish.
Stewart sits an abysmal 22nd in points, his only top 10 coming in the second race of the season at Phoenix. He'd better start winning fast if he wants to even think about the Chase this year.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.