RICHMOND, Va. --- Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch didn't need to wreck while fighting for the lead Saturday night to solidify their position with NASCAR fans.
If nothing else, the accident intensified Earnhardt's role as the most popular driver and Busch's role as the most boorish.
Through it all, Clint Bowyer came away as the most improbable winner of the Sprint Cup Series season.
The final 20 laps of the Crown Royal 400 were full of drama, disappointment and disbelief. Denny Hamlin led 381 of the first 382 laps, only to give away a victory with a flat right-front tire. That promoted Earnhardt into the lead until Busch spun him around in the third turn with three laps to go.
Bowyer then took his turn out front and stayed there for the remaining laps -- including 10 laps of overtime -- for his first win of the season. He followed Earnhardt and Busch for several laps, knowing his best chance was to wait for an accident to happen.
"They were just racing so hard there, and you knew it was going to happen," Bowyer said. "I just took advantage of a misfortune right there."
Earnhardt couldn't believe he was so close to snapping a 72-race winless streak, only to end up in the third-turn fence. More curious was how cavalier, if not defiant, Busch appeared after the accident.
"Whether it is fair or not, he is going to need some security," Earnhardt said.
"... The worst part about it is that I have been priding myself on running good all year, and I was in position for a win. I ran hard and got wrecked."
On Friday night in the Nationwide race, Busch was upset with Steve Wallace for a last-lap bump along the backstretch. Busch challenged Wallace after the race.
When he became the aggressor the next day, his tone changed dramatically.
"I mean, everybody probably is racing around the racetrack scared to death of wrecking Dale Earnhardt Jr., so why wouldn't I be any different?" Busch said. "You know that was just a product of good, hard racing. I apologize that's what happened, and I hated that it did."
Busch rebounded to finish second amid a thunderous chorus of boos.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
WHAT: Dodge Challenger 500
WHERE: Darlington Raceway
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
TV: Fox-Ch. 54
DEFENDING CHAMPION: Jeff Gordon