RICHMOND, Va. - For the first time in two years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the checkered flag within reach.
His agonizing 71-race winless streak was just three laps from ending. All Junior had to do was hold off red-hot Kyle Busch in a stirring showdown between NASCAR's most popular driver and the kid who got dumped from Hendrick Motorsports for Earnhardt and has rebounded with a sizzling start to the season.
It wasn't meant to be.
In a classic ending to a typical short-track race, the two drivers collided Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway as they battled for the win a little more than two miles from the finish.
The contact caused Earnhardt to spin then slam his Hendrick Chevrolet into the wall. Busch recovered with minimal damage to finish a controversial second to winner Clint Bowyer, who scooted past the wreckage to steal his first win of the season.
Earnhardt, so close to finally grabbing the win that has eluded him since his victory at Richmond in May, 2006, instead limped to a devastating 15th-place finish.
"I am pretty disappointed, to say the least," he sighed.
So were his devoted fans, who showered Busch with boos and a beer can or two. And everybody chuckled when Bowyer and Earnhardt both suggested Busch enlist security to help him leave the racetrack, but neither driver was joking.
"I told the cops I don't know why they were escorting me," said Bowyer, "I told them they better get on and escort Kyle Busch out of here."
It capped a hectic ending to a race that moments earlier seemed destined to be won by Denny Hamlin, who led a record 381 laps out of 400 on his hometown track. But a leaking right front tire allowed Busch and Earnhardt to catch him, and the drivers used a nifty three-wide pass to grab control of the race. Earnhardt went high, Busch went low, and both blew past Hamlin to eliminate him from contention.
So then it was Earnhardt out front, with Busch running second, and that's how it seemingly would end. On the two-year anniversary of his last Cup victory, Earnhardt was poised to break the long drought.
But Hamlin's tire failed with eight laps to go, bringing out a caution that gave Busch one final shot to deny Earnhardt the win. It put Busch in a precarious position - the winner of seven races spanning all three of NASCAR's top series this season could give it everything he had and attempt to win the race, but doing so would undoubtedly put him at risk of infuriating the pro-Junior crowd.
The decision was a no-brainer to Busch, who just like Earnhardt is paid to win races. So he went hard after the lead, pulling even with Earnhardt with three laps to go. They jockeyed for position as they circled the tight track, finally colliding in the third turn.
Of course, it wasn't intentional. Even Earnhardt said so.
But the damage was done, Busch was officially public enemy No. 1, and there was no way of convincing Earnhardt fans otherwise.
"The 'Junior Nation' assumption is probably going to always be right," Busch said. "It's just a product of hard racing with both of us going into the corner and running out of room, and we got together. We're both going after it, trying to drive as hard as we possibly can there at the end of the race. We didn't give each other enough room and enough space, and he got the worst end of the deal."
And that's what made it so hard for Earnhardt to swallow.
He's struggled to run up front for so very long now, ultimately deciding he had to leave his father's company to find a competitive ride elsewhere. He found it with Hendrick Motorsports, which harshly cut ties with Busch to sign Earnhardt.
It's a move that has worked out brilliantly for both drivers. A humbled, more mature Busch signed with Joe Gibbs Racing and has run up front every week while moving into the Sprint Cup Series points lead.
Earnhardt, meanwhile, has cemented himself as a front-runner again. He's the most consistent of the four Hendrick drivers this season, and even though he's winless, he has seven top-10 finishes through the first 10 races this season.
Before the wreck with Busch, he had a top-three finish locked down.
"The worst part about it is that I have been priding myself on running good all year, and I was in position for a win," Earnhardt said. "I ran hard and got wrecked. I had a top-three car and should have finished in the top three. Just really disappointed."37.5407 -77.43365