Under the lights in Richmond: The main event

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 14, 2008

With the NASCAR Nationwide Lipton Tea 250 out of the way and local fan favorite Denny Hamlin sitting on the pole after a huge win of the Lipton Tea 250, it looked like it would be a super weekend for this rising star.

Hamlin, having just recorded his first NASCAR Nationwide Series win at Richmond, was looking forward to recording his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win at Richmond.

However, it was not to be the night for the locals. Other local fan favorite, Elliott Sadler was starting in the eighth position with a qualifying time of 21.516 at a speed of 125.488 mph. Note that the pole position of Hamlin was 21.395 with a speed of 126.198 mph.

Elliott Sadler is the driver of the Number 19 Stanley Tools Dodge Charger and is currently 25th in the points standings having started all 10 races this season and finishing with one top-10 and 3 DNF’s.

It seems to be a moderate year for the driver who has been racing full time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since 1999.

However, note that Sadler has been behind the wheel of a car or cart since the young age of seven when he climbed behind the wheel of his first go-kart. At the age of 18, he began racing in the NASCAR Weekly Series and won the championship in 1995 at South Boston Speedway. He later moved on to the NASCAR Nationwide Series claiming 5 wins, 5 poles and 12 top-five finishes in 76 starts before moving up into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

In 2004, he finished 9th in the point standings at the end of the year followed by a 13th place finish in 2005. After more than three years with Robert Yates Racing, he moved to the Gillett Evernham Motorsports Camp as the driver of the 19 car.

Denny Hamlin, age 27, is the driver of the No. 11 Toyota and is one of the three cars fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing. The other two drivers are Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch. Denny grew up about 20 miles from Richmond and considers Richmond his home track and would love to finally get a win at this track. So far this season and prior to the Richmond race, Hamlin has posted one win (Martinsville), for top-fives and six top-10s with an average finish of 11.1. He has led four races for a total of 249 laps (prior to the Richmond race).

At Richmond, he has two top-fives, three top-tens and one pole with an average finish of 6.5. He finished sixth in the past September race. He has led all four of his previous races at Richmond with a total of 67 laps.

As for the race, it was a pretty typical race — until lap 231 when “the big one” occurred causing a red flag and damaging 11 cars and then

near the end when all heck broke loose and Kyle Busch spun Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on turn 3 with two laps to go. There were a total of 10 cautions and one red flag. It looked like Hamlin was going to finally get his dream win as he led from the pole to lap 381 never once relinquishing the lead to anyone (credit his pit crew also).

At times his lead over the second place car neared a full rear straight away. He pretty much ran by himself except when running up on lapped traffic.

And then the racing ghosts came into play on lap 379 when Hamlin’s right front tire began to go flat and he began to slow. This allowed Earnhardt, Jr. and Kyle Busch to catch him and pass him on lap 382.

Hamlin slowed and stopped, bringing out a caution flag for his flat tire on lap 382 and was penalized two laps for this incident. After leading the race and being the car to beat he had to settle for a 24th place finish, no doubt a huge disappointment to him and his team after such a great weekend.

As for Elliott Sadler, he started the race in the 8th position and bounced back and forth and fought his way all night long. On lap 100 he is credited with the 17th position and finally finished with the 20th position at the end of the night. Many times he was in deep traffic sometimes on the inside, middle and outside going into corners and out of corners three wide and sometimes looking like it would be four wide racing.

Through his professional driving skills and patience, he prevailed with no racing incidents or crashes and avoided the trouble that plagued some drivers in the field.

Michael Waltrip was involved in a crash on lap 356 with Casey Mears and after being cited for rough driving was forced to park his car for the rest of the night.

The one everyone is talking about is the last crash of the night involving Earnhardt, Jr. and Kyle Busch when Busch spun Little E with two laps to go. The crowd erupted in protest of this and Busch dug himself a little bit deeper in controversy and is certainly met with less approval by “Earnhardt Nation”.

Both drivers seemed to handle it well after the race was over. The victor and beneficiary was Clint Boyer, driving the 07 of Richard Childress Racing. It was quite an accomplishment coming from a starting position of 31st in the field and ending up the winner.

Unfortunately, his victory was a little overshadowed by the Earnhardt/Busch incident.