Kenny Hamlin might be a 25-year-old rookie, but he still knows that purposely wrecking Dale Earnhardt Jr. with a Nextel Cup victory on the line - even if you do it in your own backyard - might not be his best career move.
"The last thing I want to do is wreck Dale Jr.," Hamlin said last Saturday night after finishing second to Earnhardt Jr. in the Crown Royal 400 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. "I have a decent fan base now. I don't want to kill it."
Once a strategic miscue by his team sidetracked Kevin Harvick's bid for a runaway victory, the season's 10th Cup race turned into a spirited free-for-all over the final 75 laps.
Harvick started eighth, and it took him until Lap 50 to get to the front and take the lead from Greg Biffle. From that point, Harvick's No. 29 Chevrolet ran so strong for so long that his second Cup victory in three weeks seemed inevitable.
What changed everything, though, began on Lap 260 when Martin Truex Jr. spun off Turn 4. During the caution, everybody made pit stops, with Earnhardt Jr. second and Hamlin third on the restart on Lap 266.
Just 15 laps later, Truex Jr. lost an engine going into Turn 1 and the yellow came out again. This time, Harvick chose not to stop. But Earnhardt Jr., Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton led the would-be challengers down pit road for fresh tires.
Even though Harvick held his lead for more than 30 laps after the ensuing restart, it became quickly evident that he had made a mistake.
Earnhardt Jr. was the first to arrive on Harvick's rear bumper. Earnhardt Jr. then noticed that Hamlin and Busch had closed in.
But Hamlin, who is from nearby Chesterfield, Va., and had his own cheering section of family and friends in a crowd of more than 100,000, had other ideas. His No. 11 Chevrolet liked the low groove, and coming off Turn 2 on Lap 330 Hamlin stuck his nose to the inside and zoomed into the lead.
On Lap 356, Earnhardt Jr. took the lead. Harvick came to second a lap later, but his car got too tight, and by the time a pair of late yellows set up the final seven-lap battle Hamlin had moved up to the No. 2 spot.
When the green flew on Lap 394, Hamlin tried to pounce. Earnhardt Jr., though, successfully parried his younger rival's thrust and pulled away by several car lengths after that to win for the 17th time in his career.
Hamlin went to Victory Lane to congratulate Earnhardt Jr. The two have been friends and online racing game competitors for several years.
"I was pulling for Denny, too," Earnhardt Jr. said. "A part of me wanted to see him get the win."
But, even at Richmond, Hamlin knows where things stand when it comes to popularity among NASCAR fans.