For the first time in two years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the checkered flag within reach. His agonizing 71-race winless streak was just three laps from ending.
All he had to do was hold off red-hot Kyle Busch in a stirring showdown between NASCAR’s most popular driver and the kid who got dumped from Hendrick Motorsports for Earnhardt and has rebounded with a sizzling start to the season.
It wasn’t meant to be.
In a classic ending to a typical short-track race, the two drivers collided Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway as they battled for the win a little more than two miles from the finish.
The contact caused Earnhardt to spin, then slam his Hendrick Chevrolet into the wall. Busch recovered with minimal damage to finish a controversial second to winner Clint Bowyer, who scooted past the wreckage to steal his first win of the season.
Earnhardt, so close to finally grabbing the win that has eluded him since his victory at Richmond in May 2006, instead limped to a devastating 15th-place finish.
“I am pretty disappointed, to say the least,” he sighed.
So were his devoted fans, who showered Busch with boos and a beer can or two. And everybody chuckled when Bowyer and Earnhardt both suggested Busch enlist security to help him leave the racetrack, but neither driver was joking.
“I told the cops I don’t know why they were escorting me,” said Bowyer, “I told them they better get on and escort Kyle Busch out of here.”
No matter their experience at other tracks, all drivers who race in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time are considered rookies.
So drivers such as Oriol Servia, Justin Wilson and Will Power were required to take part in the annual Rookie Orientation Program that began Sunday. Servia made 125 starts in the former Champ Car series and once tried to qualify at Indy, while Wilson had four wins among his 54 Champ Car starts. Power was the Champ Car rookie of the year in 2006 and won that series’ final race last week at Long Beach, Calif.
Ten of the 12 rookies completed all four phases of their test, led by Power with a top lap at 220.604 mph, E.J. Viso at 220.445 and Servia, Power’s teammate at KV Racing, at 220.102. The only veteran on the track was Max Papis, who hasn’t driven an Indy car in two years and was required to take a refresher test.
“It was a good day,” said Power, a 27-year-old Australian who also had two Champ Car wins last year. “We crept up to it; we had a pretty solid car. I was happy to get flat all the way around. ... Now the challenge starts. When you start trimming out, that’s when the driving really comes in. You have to be smart with the setup.”