- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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RICHMOND, Va. -- Denny Hamlin dreamed of winning a Sprint Cup race at his home track on Saturday night. Dale Earnhardt Jr. dreamed of winning his first race since this one two years ago. Kyle Busch dreamed of winning for the second straight week and third time in 2008.
Each had his opportunity.
Clint Bowyer won.
Let's begin with Hamlin. He started on the pole and led all but one of the first 381 laps of the 400-lap event until a cut tire allowed Earnhardt and Busch to blow past him, with Earnhardt taking the lead.
Earnhardt was pulling away when Hamlin, his tire now fully deflated, stopped on the track with eight laps remaining to bring out the caution. NASCAR officials were so convinced he did that intentionally to let Busch, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, catch up that they penalized him two laps.
Earnhardt still led with four laps remaining when he and Busch got into each other going into Turn 3. Earnhardt went into a spin that dropped him to the back of the lead lap. Busch lost just enough speed that Bowyer was able to get around him.
Some Earnhardt fans in the sellout crowd at Richmond International Raceway showed their displeasure by throwing things onto the track.
None hit Bowyer, who had little trouble holding off Busch on the green-white-checkered finish to collect his second Cup victory.
"I told the cops I don't know why they were escorting me into [the media center]," Bowyer said with a laugh. "I told them they better get over there and escort Kyle Busch."
While Bowyer had the winner's trophy and Hamlin had the best car, most of the postrace talk centered around Earnhardt and Busch. That tends to happen when there's a confrontation between anybody and NASCAR's perennial most popular driver.
When the so-called villain is Busch, who was replaced by Earnhardt at Hendrick Motorsports, it draws even more attention, which is unfair to Bowyer, but it's reality nonetheless.
"For some reason they're awfully confused," said Busch, who took the points lead from Jeff Burton. "They were giving me the No. 1 sign the last 10 laps of the race when I was in second place still. I don't know if those were from too many old Dale Jr. Budweisers or whether they were Amped up."
Busch was able to cleverly make light of the fans with Earnhardt's old and new sponsor. That wasn't the case when asked about Rick Pigeon, his former crew member at Hendrick and now a member of Earnhardt's crew, who had confronted him after the race.
"The fact that he came down and confronted me, saying why did I do that and thinking I did it deliberately, was beyond insane," Busch said.
The whole finish was insane.
Hamlin was headed for a perfect weekend before he ran over something that made a large V-like cut in his tire. He won Friday night's Nationwide Series race, his first victory at the track about 20 miles from his home in Chesterfield.
He raised $50,000 for his foundation and finished second to Busch in Thursday night's charity race at nearby Southside Speedway.
He was 19 laps from fulfilling a childhood dream on a track where five years ago he sat in the stands as a spectator.
He finished 24th.
"He had the car to beat," Busch said. "He had the field covered. It's just a bummer to see that happen to him. Those guys deserved it."
To have the two-lap penalty, Hamlin said, "was just a kick in the face after a bad deal."
"It wasn't meant to be," Hamlin said. "God didn't want me to win today."
Divine powers apparently weren't ready for Earnhardt to end his two-year drought, either. He finished 15th with a car he believed deserved no less than third place.
"As mad as I am about that situation and as much as is going to be made of it in the coming week, the real injustice is this team didn't get what they deserved," said Earnhardt, who maintained his position of third in points.
Earnhardt didn't bash Busch, wanting to wait until he saw the replay to determine who was at fault. But he didn't get away without taking at least a little stab at Busch's aggressive driving that occasionally comes into question.
"If I want to talk to Kyle, I've got to get in line," he said.
Busch didn't get away without saying that Earnhardt wrecked him twice during the championship chase a year ago. But he insisted that had nothing to do with this incident, adding it was nothing but hard racing.
"It was just something where two cars got together, and unfortunately it was Dale Earnhardt Jr.," he said.
Bowyer, who started 31st, had arguably the best seat in the house to watch everything unfold.
"Yeah, they were putting on a show for a while," he said. "I thought so, anyway. They were racing hard. That's what racing at Richmond is all about in my opinion. It just didn't work out."
At least not for Earnhardt, Busch or even Hamlin.
But it did work out for Bowyer, who made no apologies for the victory that moved him to fourth in points.
"The fastest car does not always win," said Bowyer, who gave Richard Childress Racing its second win of the year. "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.
"It was pretty wild out there. It was bound to happen. I was watching it and [owner Richard Childress] was on the radio saying, 'It's going to happen,' and sure enough, it did happen."
And the dream of three drivers turned into an unexpected win for another.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.