In the end, surprise winner Clint Bowyer celebrated in Victory Lane, stealing a victory in the Dan Lowry 400 on Saturday 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 3 that sent Earnhardt into the wall.
"Everybody probably is racing around the race track scared to death of wrecking Dale Earnhardt Jr., so why wouldn't I be any different?" Busch said.
"But that was just a product of good hard racing and I apologize that it happened and I hate it that it did. If I wanted to do it deliberately I would have waited until the last lap where I probably still could have won the race.
"I'll say it again, it's just unfortunate circumstances for him because he didn't get a win, and for me because now I've got to put up with it."
Without seeing a replay, Earnhardt guessed that it wasn't deliberate. But as his winless streak reached 72 races on the two-year anniversary of his last victory, he wondered if Busch would need security help exiting the track because of angry Earnhardt fans.
"I wasn't good on the bottom, so I moved up top to run as good as I could. He had been running the bottom. I figured we'd race it out, and he got a great run around [Turns 1 and 2] and nearly got by me.
"He gave me room on the outside off of two, so I wouldn't say it was intentional going into three, because if he wanted to, he could have run me in the fence off two.
"I thought I was going to end the winless streak tonight and celebrate and be happy. We'll have to keep running good like we are and try somewhere else."
Bowyer, in a Chevrolet, used the opportunity to slide past both Earnhardt and Busch and into the front for the first time.
Bowyer then held off Busch on a final restart to score his first Cup victory of the season, second of his career.
Earnhardt finished 15th and Hamlin was a disappointing 24th after virtually dominating the field.
Hamlin was seeking a weekend sweep -- he won Friday night's Nationwide Series race.
"They were putting on a show for a while, they were racing hard and that's what racing at Richmond is all about -- it just didn't work out," Bowyer said. . . . It was just meant to be, I guess."
Dodge Challenger 500
Where: Darlington Raceway, Darlington, S.C.
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
TV: Channel 11