NASCAR: Richmond Mayhem Shakes Up Standings

Luke KrmpotichContributor IIMay 1, 2011

RICHMOND, VA - APRIL 30:  Paul Menard, driver of the #27 Libman/Menards Chevrolet, David Reutimann, driver of the #00 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 DuPont Chevrolet, and Mark Martin, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, crash during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The Matthew & Daniel Hansen 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 30, 2011 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

For more than half the race, Richmond was dominated by long green-flag stretches. The only drama was the struggles of several top drivers. Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and others were lapped.

However, beginning just past the halfway point in the race, the cautions began to come fast and furious, and each caution and ensuing double-file restart seemed to lead to the next caution.

Juan Pablo Montoya turned Ryan Newman in retaliation for an earlier incident, Jeff Gordon was tagged by Matt Kenseth (who had been hit from behind by Clint Bowyer) and hit the inside wall hard, and Kurt Busch was involved in multiple incidents for the second consecutive race.

But finally, cooler heads prevailed as the race ended with a long green-flag run. Fuel strategies played out as several drivers were forced to pit for fuel in the closing laps, including Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton.  Kyle Busch, meanwhile, ran the final 107 laps without pitting, stretching his fuel en route to his third consecutive spring Richmond victory.

How did the mayhem affect the points standings?

Kyle Busch gained the maximum number of points and moved up three positions to third in the standings. He passed his brother Kurt Busch (who fell out of the top five for the first time in 2011), Kevin Harvick, and Dale Earnhardt. Jr., none of whom finished in the top 10 at Richmond.

With a finish of sixth, Clint Bowyer also moved up three spots to seventh. He leapfrogged Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, and Juan Pablo Montoya, each of whom had damaged race cars and finished 20th or worse.

A.J. Allmendinger had his second consecutive Richmond top-10, coming home seventh. His strong run boosted him four positions in the standings, moving him into the Chase zone at 11th overall. Allmendinger passed Paul Menard, Juan Montoya, Jeff Gordon, and Mark Martin.

Following his violent crash, Jeff Gordon finished 39th at Richmond and fell three spots in the standings to 16th. However, if the season were to end today he'd still make the Chase as a wild card, due to his earlier victory at Phoenix.

Despite his second-place finish, Denny Hamlin remains mired at 17th in the points and is still 37 points behind Tony Stewart in 10th place. He can still make the Chase if he can build off his strong Richmond run and rattle off a string of good finishes. Another option for Hamlin is to win a couple of races and earn a Chase spot as a wild card.

Lower down in the standings, Jeff Burton still doesn't have a top-10 this year, but he did move up two positions in the points to 20th, his first time that high this season. For Burton, it's getting perilously late for him to make a run at the Chase. He is 61 points behind Stewart for 10th place, and that large of a deficit—not to mention passing 9-10 other drivers—will prove difficult to make up.

There are still 17 races before the Chase begins, and it's far from clear who will make the field.

Allmendinger and Menard are threatening to make the Chase for the first time in their careers. Mark Martin, Juan Montoya, Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are positioning themselves to make runs at the Chase after absences of one year or more.

It will be fascinating to watch as the Chase picture develops, especially with the addition of the wild-card rule. Next week the series moves to Darlington, a tricky track that could favor veterans with more experience at the Lady in Black.