RICHMOND, Va. - It's a victory Clint Bowyer won't soon forget.
Whether anyone else remembers it or the wild series of events that brought it about instead remains to be seen.
For 380 of the scheduled 400 laps in Saturday night's Jim Lowry 400 at Richmond International Raceway, the win appeared secure in the hands of hometown favorite Denny Hamlin, who already had won a Nationwide Series race and Cup pole during the course of the weekend.
As the race roared toward its conclusion, Hamlin's right-front tire developed a leak and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch raced around him as he slowed with 18 laps left. That put Earnhardt Jr. on the verge of ending his career-long 71-race winless streak, a fact noticed by the fans that roared in approval as he took the lead.
Nearly as quickly as the opportunity for his first victory at Hendrick Motorsports developed, it disappeared when Busch and Earnhardt Jr. wrecked while racing for the lead with three laps to go. Earnhardt Jr. plowed into the wall, while Bowyer drove past Busch before the caution was displayed.
Bowyer, who started 31st, suddenly found himself a two-lap overtime dash away from an unexpected victory. He got a jump on Busch on the restart on Lap 409 and held on for his first Sprint Cup Series win of the season and second of his career.
So what to make of this win?
"It was meant to be, I guess," Bowyer said of the crazy ending.
"If that's what you want to call it, he won by being there," added Bowyer's team owner, Richard Childress. "If you’re running up front, things like this will happen for us," added Bowyer's crew chief, Gil Martin.
While the fast-changing fortunes of Hamlin, Earnhardt Jr. and Busch may have attracted the most attention, Bowyer's win left Richard Childress Racing with perhaps the most important prize – all three of its teams in the top five in points.
Bowyer improved to fourth, Kevin Harvick's eighth-place finish moved him to fifth and Jeff Burton, who led the points prior to the race, dropped to second after finishing 11th.
"Everybody just worked so hard at RCR this winter and we knew what we had to do, and we're still not where we really want to be with our program," said Childress. "To have them all up there (in the top five) right now feels good."
Bowyer hopes Saturday's unexpected victory provides the same type of spark to his season that his first Cup victory did last year at New Hampshire, site of the first race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"Last year we were the odd man out, and getting into the Chase, we won that race and it just did so much momentum-wise and (for) confidence," Bowyer said.
"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. I think it will do so now."
Mark Martin finished third for his best performance since the 2007 season, Tony Stewart was fourth and Martin Truex Jr. fifth.
Hamlin ended up 24th, a finish that came in part because he was penalized for intentionally causing a caution late in the race when his tire finally went flat.
"You don't have days like this," Hamlin said. "Dominating days like this just don't happen and usually when it does, you have an issue at the end. So to me, it just wasn't that surprising."