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.
A flat tire ruined Denny Hamlin's run.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.
"I'll say it again, its just unfortunate circumstances for him because he didn't get a win, and for me because now I've got to put up with it.''
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 amidst 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.
"I thought I was going to end the winless streak tonight and celebrate and be happy. We'll have to keep running good like we are and try somewhere else.''
Bowyer used the opportunity to slide past both 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.
Clint Bowyer celebrates a win."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.
Hamlin was comfortable on the track the very first day he raced here, and in four previous starts, he had three top-10 finishes.
But it was the win he was looking for. After winning the pole Friday, he said earning that top starting spot was the highlight of his career. Then he one-upped himself with the Nationwide win.
He still wanted the Cup win, and had it locked up until the flat tire.
"You can't whine about it. It just wasn't meant to be,'' Hamlin said. "God didn't want me to win today.''
He called his two-lap penalty for bringing out the caution "just a kick in the face after a bad deal.''
"It is what it is. What's the difference? We didn't win,'' he said. "It's 25th or 10th, wherever we would have been, or 15th, one lap down, it doesn't matter at this point.''
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.
Michael Waltrip was parked by NASCAR with 45 laps to go for intentionally driving into Casey Mears after the two made contact moments earlier