RICHMOND, Va. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. was ready to win. His fans were more than ready.
Alas, it was not to be.
Denny Hamlin's misfortune provided a timely opportunity for Earnhardt Jr. to snap his career-long 71-race winless streak at Richmond International Raceway, where he earned his most recent Sprint Cup Series win in 2006.
Hamlin dominated the race, but with 20 laps remaining a slow leak developed in his right-front tire, which allowed Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch to cruise by. Earnhardt Jr.'s two-year victory drought appeared ready to end, but Busch would have none of it.
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The two raced hard side-by-side until finally with three of the 400 scheduled laps remaining, the two made contact and Earnhardt Jr. slammed into the wall and Busch was passed by eventual winner Clint Bowyer.
"I wasn't good at the bottom (of the track) so I moved up top. He got a great run around (Turns) 1 and 2 and nearly got by me," Earnhardt Jr. said.
"I wouldn’t say it was intentional because if he wanted to he could have thrown me in the fence off (Turn) 2. We had been racing each other earlier and had no problems."
The bitter ending seemed to sit uneasily with Earnhardt Jr.
"The worst part about it is, I've been priding myself on running good all year and I was in position for a win. I ran hard and got wrecked. I had a top-three car and should have finished in the top three," he said.
"I was going for the win and I just ended up on the hook (of the tow truck) today."
The fans did not take kindly to Earnhardt Jr.'s wreck. Many shouted obscenities toward Busch and some hurled trash toward the track.
"That was just a product of good, hard racing. I apologize that it happened and hate it that it did," said Busch. "He didn't get hurt and nothing bad happened. He will see another day of racing.
"To say that I took a win away from him, it's hard to say. If I had wanted to do it deliberately I would have waited until the last lap so I could have won the race."