Jimmie Johnson had an amazing eight wins at Martinsville Speedway entering Sunday's STP 500, but the defending champion was out-dueled by Kurt Busch down the stretch for the checkered flag.
A star-studded field of drivers promised to shake up the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase in Ridgeway, Va. Rising in the latest standings, though, is a familiar fixture in Johnson despite narrowly missing out on his first victory of the season after leading 296 of 500 laps.
In Johnson's defense, there has been a fair amount of parity in stock car racing's top circuit thus far in 2014, per NASCAR Stats:
Here is a look at the latest points standings, along with what's on the schedule in the coming weeks:
|1||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||Hendrick Motorsports||227|
|2||Matt Kenseth||Joe Gibbs Racing||218|
|3||Carl Edwards||Roush Fenway Racing||217|
|4||Jeff Gordon||Hendrick Motorsports||216|
|5||Jimmie Johnson||Hendrick Motorsports||209|
|6||Kyle Busch||Joe Gibbs Racing||189|
|7||Brad Keselowski||Team Penske||188|
|8||Joey Logano||Team Penske||187|
|9||Austin Dillon||Richard Childress Racing||179|
|10||Ryan Newman||Richard Childress Racing||174|
|Race||Track||Date||Time (ET)||Distance (Miles)||2013 Winner|
|Duck Commander 500||Texas Motor Speedway||Sun, April 6||3 p.m.||501||Kyle Busch|
|Bojangles' Southern 500||Darlington Raceway||Sat, April 12||6:30 p.m.||501.322||Matt Kenseth|
|Toyota Owners 400||Richmond International Raceway||Sat, April 26||7 p.m.||300||Kevin Harvick|
|Aaron's 499||Talladega Superspeedway||Sun, May 4||1 p.m.||500.08||David Ragan|
|Kansas 400||Kansas Speedway||Sat, May 10||7:30 p.m.||400.5||Matt Kenseth|
|NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race||Charlotte Motor Speedway||Sat, May 17||9 p.m.||135||Jimmie Johnson|
|Coca-Cola 600||Charlotte Motor Speedway||Sun, May 25||6 p.m.||600||Kevin Harvick|
|FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks||Dover International Speedway||Sun, June 1||1 p.m.||400||Tony Stewart|
Reigning Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. settled for third place to continue his strong start to the season with his fourth top-three finish already, and rose to the top of the standings as a result.
A 13th-place effort wasn't ideal for Carl Edwards, causing him to lose his overall lead in points and slide to third. Edwards had a tough task thanks to the tight standings, a race of elite competitors and a myriad of lead changes.
Fox Sports: NASCAR's Twitter feed noted the significance of Busch's trip to victory lane in the context of the Chase:
It seems Johnson is due to secure his first win of 2014 soon enough with the number of times he's put himself in position already, per Hendrick Motorsports:
The short "Paperclip" track created plenty of drama, including a tangle between Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne in pit lane that resulted in Keselowski wrecking and finishing in 38th.
NASCAR on ESPN's official Twitter account noted how frustrated Keselowski was in losing valuable points:
Keselowski not at all happy with Kurt, saying Busch drove right through his car in the pits and tore the suspension off the car.— NASCAR on ESPN (@ESPNNASCAR) March 30, 2014
Jeff Gluck of USA Today reported that Keselowski would welcome a confrontation with Busch after falling from fourth to seventh in the Chase standings:
Keselowski was still really fired up after the race. Said if Kurt wants to fight, leave victory lane and c'mon down.— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) March 30, 2014
It's impressive that Busch was able to retain his focus and eventually outlast the prolific Johnson over the final several laps. It also snapped a long, winless drought, per NASCAR Stats:
With the victory, Busch breaks an 83-start winless drought. His last win came at Dover on Oct. 2, 2011. #NASCAR— NASCAR Stats (@NASCARStats) March 30, 2014
Busch led just 23 laps, yet it was enough to emerge victorious. He alluded to how successful Johnson has been in the past after the race:
Looking ahead to what's next, Kyle Busch won the Duck Commander 500 last year and will seek to improve his points total after placing 14th at Martinsville.
Placing seventh in spite of adverse circumstances was something Kevin Harvick was proud of his crew for, especially since he was dealing with a broken part:
Harvick has had a tough start to the year but could be on his way to redemption. The 2013 winner at Darlington will seek another strong result there on April 12, which could give him a needed spark.
Matt Kenseth won two of the next five races last season, so it's conceivable that he could be in the Chase lead before the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. Then again, Earnhardt has been on a tear, and Johnson is bound to continue climbing given his consistent leads.
Such a small margin separates the top drivers, so just about anything can happen in the foreseeable future for NASCAR. With the diversity in winners from week to week and such depth in every race, the schedule offers plenty of excitement for fans and teams alike.