RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - 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 Junior 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.