- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) - First Denny Hamlin appeared to be headed toward an easy victory. Then Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed poised to snap his two-year losing streak.

In the end, it was surprise winner Clint Bowyer who celebrated in victory lane, stealing a victory last 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.

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.

“Just a bummer deal,” Busch shrugged. “We were both racing hard there.”

“Whether it was fair or not, he’s going to need security,” Earnhardt lamented.

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 for his first Cup victory of the season and the second of his career.

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.

Busch finished second, then was confronted on pit road by his former crew members at 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 would 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.

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.

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