Richmond, Va. Denny Hamlin appeared headed toward an easy victory. Then, Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed poised to snap his two-year losing streak.
In the end, surprise winner Clint Bowyer celebrated in Victory Lane, stealing a victory Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway that ended in wild fashion.
Hamlin, the hometown favorite, ran away with the race and led a record 381 of the 400 laps in search of his first Cup victory at Richmond. Nobody came close to challenging him until a leaking right front tire allowed Earnhardt and Kyle Busch to catch him.
The two drivers split Hamlin as they moved past him, with Earnhardt emerging as the leader with 18 laps to go. Hamlin's tire finally failed with eight to go, and NASCAR accused him of intentionally bringing out the caution that regrouped the field.
Earnhardt and Busch staged a strong battle for the lead when the race resumed, but Busch and Earnhardt made contact in turn three that sent Earnhardt into the wall.
"Everybody probably is racing around the race track scared to death of wrecking Dale Earnhardt Jr., so why wouldn't I be any different?" Busch said. "But that was just a product of good hard racing, and I apologize that it happened, and I hate it that it did. If I wanted to do it deliberately I would have waited until the last lap where I probably still could have won the race.
Without seeing a replay, Earnhardt guessed that it wasn't deliberate. But as his winless streak reached 72 races on the two-year anniversary of his last victory, he wondered if Busch would need security help exiting the track amid the angry Earnhardt fans.
"I wasn't good on the bottom, so I moved up top to run as good as I could. He had been running the bottom. I figured we'd race it out, and he got a great run around (Turn) one and two and nearly got by me. He gave me room on the outside off of two, so I wouldn't say it was intentional going into three, because if he wanted to, he could have run me in the fence off two."
Bowyer used the opportunity to slide past Earnhardt and Busch and into the front for the first time all night. Bowyer then held off Busch on a final restart to score his first Cup victory of the season, second of his career.
"We knew we had that all day, didn't we?" he sarcastically asked his crew after crossing the finish line.
"It's awesome. I love this place," he said in Victory Lane. "I messed things up in qualifying for the guys. We just dug deep and worked hard, and things worked out - took advantage of a misfortune right there up front. This is awesome. It's what it's all about."
Busch finished second, then was confronted on pit road by a former crew members from Hendrick Motorsports. Busch spent three years driving for Hendrick, but was replaced by Earnhardt this season.
Mark Martin finished a season-best third and was followed by Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr. and Carl Edwards. Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne rounded out the top 10.
Earnhardt finished 15th, and Hamlin was a disappointing 24th after nearly routing the field.
Hamlin was seeking a weekend sweep - he won Friday night's Nationwide Series race - in front of a boisterous crowd of friends and family thrilled to see him finally accomplish his dream.
He grew up just outside of Richmond in Chesterfield, and his family had season tickets to the track, where he sat in the Turn 4 stands cheering on favorite driver Bill Elliott. His parents mortgaged just about everything they owned to fund his racing career, all in the hopes he'd someday reach Richmond's Victory Lane.
"You can't whine about it. It just wasn't meant to be," Hamlin said.
The race was stopped for nearly 22 minutes a little past the halfway point when contact between Dave Blaney, J.J. Yeley and Edwards triggered a 12-car accident. Among those caught in the wreckage was points leader Jeff Burton, Jimmie Johnson, Newman and Kurt Busch.