Jeff Gluck, NASCAR Scene
Up in Smoke
The mass of humanity stood as one, pulsating and electrified like New Year’s Eve revelers in Times Square. Energy flowed through 112,000 bodies at Richmond Inter-national Raceway, flashbulbs sparkling and dancing around the night sky as the countdown to a wild celebration began.
Ten more laps … nine … eight …
All across Junior Nation, friends called friends – heck, maybe even enemies – and told them to turn on the race. Everyone had to see this: Their man, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was finally, fittingly, exhaustingly, about to return to victory lane.
Seven … six …
This was Earnhardt Jr.’s night. Sure, it had once been Denny Hamlin’s night, back a few laps earlier when he’d been dominating the race like no one had dominated any short-track event in recent history.
But once the hometown favorite Hamlin fell victim to a heartbreaking flat tire and Earnhardt Jr. took over, Junior Nation had little time for sympathy. Not with its driver about to win.
At long last, the world would be right again in their minds. A two-year victory drought for NASCAR’s most popular driver would end in a flood of champagne, beer and Amp Energy Drink at the same track where he last won in 2006.
Even when Hamlin purposefully stopped on the track to force a caution, bringing the hated Kyle Busch to their hero’s rear bumper on a restart with five laps to go, members of Junior Nation still knew this was the night.
Five … four … three …
They knew it right up until the moment when Busch made contact with Earnhardt Jr. in Turn 3 on lap 398, the moment that ended with the No. 88 car crashing into the wall less than two miles from the finish and reaffirming Busch’s place as the most reviled driver on the circuit.
Junior Nation’s countdown was frozen, and its Times Square ball never dropped – it was shattered.
Instead, it was Clint Bowyer who emerged as the stunning winner of the Crown Royal 400.
Bowyer? Where’d he come from?
Fair or not, Bowyer’s second career Cup victory will garner far less attention for the Richard Childress Racing driver than his first, which came during the Chase last year. In fact, it might be the most overlooked win of this season.
Such is life when the headline-grabbing Earnhardt Jr. is leading a race and gets wrecked by the sport’s hottest and most controversial driver.
Such is life when local boy Hamlin suffers through misfortune like Charlie Brown lining up to kick the ball, only to have it pulled away at the last instant.
To give him due credit, Bowyer was indeed in position to claim victory after those in front of him faltered. He ran fourth or fifth for the last 120 laps of the race after starting 31st.
“The fastest car does not always win, and that was the case with [us],” Bowyer said. “You know, you’ve got to be able to be there for the taking at least, and we were close enough to do just that.”
But even Bowyer recognized that the story of this race went far beyond himself.
“I told the cops, I don’t know why they were escorting me [into the interview room],” he said. “I told them they better get on and escort Kyle Busch out of here.”
Said Earnhardt Jr.: “He’s going to need security for all of us.”
No matter what Busch says – and he apologized several times, said he regretted the incident and insisted it was unintentional – most Earnhardt Jr. fans would be more likely to believe Pinocchio.
At least one crew member is with them. Jackman Rick Pigeon – the crewman responsible for asking Earnhardt Jr. to drive Busch’s wrecked Hendrick Motorsports car at Texas last year, putting into motion a complex series of events that ultimately led to Busch’s ouster and Earnhardt Jr.’s arrival – accosted his former driver on pit road.
“The fact that he came down and confronted me saying why did I do that, thinking I did it deliberately,” Busch said, “is beyond insane.”
Deliberate? An accident? The debate will rage on for quite some time.
With less than three laps to go, the drivers streaked out of the backstretch and dove into Turn 3 with Earnhardt Jr. in the lead. Busch stuck his No. 18 car underneath the No. 88, but couldn’t quite stay there and slipped up the track. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to make contact and send Earnhardt Jr. spinning.
In the cloud of smoke, Busch slowed enough to let Bowyer get by. Earnhardt Jr. had to pit for repairs and ultimately finished 15th, while Busch placed second.
As the incident unfolded before their eyes and cell phone cameras, tens of thousands of fans in the grandstands moaned, groaned and cursed. They threw their hands up in disgust and dropped their jaws in disbelief.
Some tossed objects toward the track. Some just left. Others gave Busch a one-fingered salute.
“They are awfully confused, because they were giving me the No. 1 sign the last 10 laps of the race, and I was in second place still,” Busch said. “So I don’t know whether that’s too many Dale Jr. Budweisers or they are Amp-ed up or what.
“There’s nothing you can say, absolutely nothing. If I apologize up and down, even though it may or may not be my fault, it would not make a difference. ... It’s 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.”
Earnhardt Jr. – after asking for crew chief Tony Eury Jr.’s “honest opinion” on the team radio – said he didn’t think Busch did it on purpose.
“He gave me room off the outside of [Turn] 2, so I wouldn’t say that was intentional going into [Turn] 3,” he said. “Because if he had wanted to, he could have just thrown me in the fence off [Turn] 2. We had been racing each other earlier and had no problems.”
That Busch carried no ill intentions did little to ease Earnhardt Jr.’s disappointment. He appeared understandably downtrodden and discouraged, a stark departure from his typical upbeat, keep-our-heads-up approach when faced with other on-track disappointments.
“The worst part about it is that … I was in position for a win and I ran hard and got wrecked,” said Earnhardt Jr., voice teetering on the edge of emotion. “I was going for the win. Just ended up on the hook today. Just disappointed.”
It’s been 72 races since Earnhardt Jr. last won a Cup points race, an agonizing stretch for both the driver and his legion of fans who expected a quick return to victory lane after Earnhardt Jr. joined Hendrick Motorsports and left the turmoil of Dale Earnhardt Inc. behind.
But 10 races have now passed this season, and though Earnhardt Jr. is third in points with top-10 finishes in all but three races, he and his supporters have yet to celebrate a win.
“We’re running good every week, and this night was a night we should have won and it got took away,” said Eury Jr., his crew chief and cousin. “I told all these boys to keep their chins up. This isn’t the last time we’ll be going for a win this year, I promise you that.”
Earnhardt Jr.’s team could have partied the night away in Richmond had the wreck not occurred. But Busch wasn’t the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver to play a part in thwarting a possible celebration.
It seemed every person in the entire Richmond metropolitan area knew that JGR’s Hamlin had the best car on the track. Up until his right-front tire began to deflate less than 20 laps from the finish, Hamlin had led an eye-popping 381 of 382 laps, with only AJ Allmendinger’s pit strategy preventing a perfect night.
Statisticians scrambled for numbers and background to prepare for such an achievement. Hamlin broke the track record for laps led in a 400-lap race, eclipsing Bobby Allison’s 369 in 1979, and he had threatened to be the first driver since Jeff Burton in 2000 to lead every lap of a Cup race.
But when he radioed his crew with the sickening news that his tire was going soft, and that an unbeatable car was all for naught, all of that was irrelevant.
It would have been painful and agonizing on a normal race weekend. But Hamlin, from nearby Chesterfield, Va., has desired a Richmond Cup victory more than a win at any other track.
This was his Daytona, and the trophy was right there for the taking until the tire problem sucked the air out of his chances.
Hamlin continued to circle the track as he dropped farther and farther in the field, trying to nurse the car to the finish. Who knows what kind of thoughts go through a driver’s mind when disappointment has struck such a cruel blow?
What possible explanation was there for his misfortune? After the race, Hamlin sat in his car for an extended period of time before emerging.
“God,” he said, “didn’t want me to win today.”
It was like a sucker punch he never saw coming, yet could sense it from a mile away.
“You don’t have days like this. Dominating days like this just don’t happen,” he said. “Usually, when it does, you have an issue at the end. To me, it almost wasn’t that surprising.”
He certainly had the sympathy of 41 other drivers, all of whom would agree he had the field covered, though one driver was not as understanding.
That’s because, for some reason, Hamlin intentionally stopped his car on the track with nine laps to go. He said it was because he was trying to reach pit road, but it brought out a caution and erased Earnhardt Jr.’s lead over Busch – Hamlin’s teammate.
Whatever Hamlin’s ultimate goal, his move certainly didn’t do Earnhardt Jr. any favors.
“Everybody knows the deal on that one,” said Earnhardt Jr., who was once penalized for intentionally causing a caution. “Everybody knows that’s wrong. Y’all know what to write. I ain’t writing it for you.”
NASCAR penalized Hamlin two laps for the intentional caution – which Hamlin called “a kick in the face after a bad deal anyway.”
“What’s the difference?” Hamlin said. “We didn’t win. … It doesn’t matter at this point.”
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition, said officials took away the laps Hamlin would have lost by coming down pit road under the green flag but planned no further penalty.
“We’re done with him,” Pemberton said.
Indeed, the damage was done. Hamlin finished 24th, three laps behind the leaders.
The man who went to victory lane instead was Bowyer, who has picked up where he left off last fall by compiling consistent finishes this season.
Though he has led a lap in just four of 10 events, he has reeled off seven consecutive top-10 finishes and sits fourth in points after surprising the racing world with a third-place result in the 2007 standings.
Bowyer doesn’t put his No. 07 car at the front of the field week after week, instead stringing together respectable, solid runs that keep him out of trouble and compose the perfect formula for making the Chase.
This season, for example, he’s led 200 fewer laps than two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart and 34 less than four-time champ Jeff Gordon, but Stewart is four spots behind Bowyer in the standings and Gordon trails by nine, and Bowyer has more top-10s than either.
“It doesn’t matter what you do in life, if you have a little confidence and momentum on your side, the sky’s the limit and that’s certainly what it did in the Chase [last year],” Bowyer said. “I think it’s going to do that same thing now.”