By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009
RICHMOND, May 2 -- Most NASCAR drivers spend their careers toiling and scheming to win the Daytona 500.
Denny Hamlin has devoted his to chasing a more modest prize: A Sprint Cup trophy at Richmond International Raceway, the short track just down the road from his home town of Chesterfield.
For the second year in a row, Hamlin led the most laps in NASCAR's 400-lap race Richmond only to have what looked like a sure victory Saturday spoiled by bad luck. This time, a loose lug nut was the culprit.
Despite a furious effort to regain lost ground, Hamlin wasn't a factor when it mattered. Instead, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch zoomed past Jeff Gordon to snatch the lead on a restart with 48 laps to go and roared on to the victory.
It was Busch's third win of the Sprint Cup season, and it marked his second trip to Victory Lane at Richmond in as many days.
Busch celebrated the achievement, which came on his 24th birthday, with a smoke-spewing burnout. Then he climbed from his car, thrust both arms in the air and took his signature bow to a cascade of boos from a vocal delegation of fans who clearly would have preferred to see almost anyone but the brash, precocious Busch win again.
"As long as they're making noise, that's what matters most," Busch said afterward, flanked by his crew chief and a gleeful Gibbs. "They're spending their hard-earned money to watch us 43 hooligans race. It's cool they come out and are so passionate. Whether it's a one-finger salute or a thumbs-up, it's all good."
Tony Stewart finished second, and Jeff Burton was third. Hamlin was relegated to 14th in the late-race shuffling that saw one car after another spin and crash in the frenzy that erupted on each restart. It was a particularly wild last 100 laps, with fans on their feet as the fastest cars sliced and diced for the lead.
Mused Stewart, one of the sport's tougher-nosed racers, "Seems like as time goes on there is less etiquette and less give-and-take and more idiots out there than we have ever had before."
After afternoon downpours drenched the three-quarter-mile oval, few gave the 300-lap race much chance of being completed. But instead of being cut short by rain, the race was run to its full distance to the delight of the crowd of 100,000.
If anything, the specter of more rain heightened the competition. Drivers knew that NASCAR officials could declare the race over after 200 laps if showers returned. NASCAR cars can't race in the rain or on damp tracks because their tires have no treads.
So drivers battled harder as the night wore on, unsure whether the next lap would be the last.
The result was a record-tying 15 cautions. None of the wrecks caused serious damage to cars or drivers -- just some dented sheet metal and a few hard feelings.
With the track too damp for full-speed racing at the outset, NASCAR officials started the event under a green-and-yellow flag, which meant that racecars paraded around the oval double-file, barred from passing, in an effort to help dry the track.
After six noncompetitive laps, the pace car pulled onto pit road, setting up the full-throttle fury fans had paid to see. The cars roared to life, and fans erupted in cheers.
Gordon grabbed the lead from pole-sitter Brian Vickers on the first lap and dominated the early going.
Still, given the conditions, it took awhile for drivers to feel comfortable enough to race in close quarters. But once the exhaust fumes from 43 racecar engines fully dried the racing surface, drivers got bolder, and things got interesting.
Hamlin moved his Toyota into the lead on Lap 73, with the Busch brothers (Kyle and Kurt) in close pursuit.
It was a calamitous race for three-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, who was penalized for exceeding the speed limit during a pit stop, developed a brake problem and spun out just before the halfway point and was penalized again for pitting out of sequence. He finished 36th.
Burton got knocked into the wall by contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Lap 211. It was the first time Earnhardt Jr., a three-time winner at Richmond, had done anything worth commenting on. He was never a factor and finished 27th.
At that point Hamlin was in command, fending off one challenger after another. He was due for a strong showing after last year's bitter disappointment, when he led 381 of the first 382 laps at Richmond only to blow a tire with less than 20 laps to go.
But Saturday night, his hopes were crushed by a gaffe in the pits with about 100 laps remaining. He entered the pits as the leader but exited sixth after a loose lug nut fell from his right-front tire, costing precious seconds.
Gordon, battled an ill-handling car, opted not to pit for tires when the other front-runners did on Lap 308, gambling that rain would soon halt the action. The gamble vaulted him to the lead but he couldn't maintain it, his grip fading as the race ground on.
Busch finally whipped around him on the high side to retake the lead a final time with 48 laps to go.