MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Rick Hendrick was poised to celebrate his 200th career Sprint Cup victory. Jeff Gordon was poised to end a miserable start to the 2012 season by giving his boss that momentous win. Jimmie Johnson was poised to make it happen with a last-lap pass.
The crowd was poised for a last-lap miracle from Dale Earnhardt Jr. in third place.
Then all hell broke loose at Martinsville Speedway.
And Ryan Newman won.
Nobody was poised for that on Sunday, which is why fans love short-track racing, why they've been belly-aching the past two weeks since the snooze-fest at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Newman did have a Hendrick Motorsports engine, but that doesn't give Hendrick, Gordon, Johnson or even Earnhardt any solace. They were the class of the field all day -- leading 441 of 515 laps -- and basically came away with nothing.
Except a little anger.
Some of it was directed at David Reutimann, who brought out the caution with three laps to go in regulation just as Gordon made the pass for the lead, because his car stalled.
A lot of it was directed at Clint Bowyer for dive-bombing Gordon and Johnson on the first green-white-checkered finish to start a chain reaction that left Newman in the lead and ended almost any chance an HMS car would win.
"Stupid idiot," Gordon said of Bowyer on his radio after leading a race-high 328 laps. "What a jerk."
"It was just unfortunate, stupid," Johnson said after finishing 12th in a car that led 112 laps.
"He just bombed it in there, like a moron," crew chief Chad Knaus said over his radio during the ensuing caution.
"Really, really uncalled for and ruined the day of a lot of people," said Brad Keselowski, who finished ninth instead of the top five he felt he deserved.
"Lot of cussing," Gordon said with a laugh after the race. "Lot of frustration. Upset about what happens, especially when it happens like it did with a last-minute dive-bomb, and hope-that-it-works type thing.
"That stuff is just no fun."
For HMS, this had to feel like a bad April Fool's joke. But short of Earnhardt winning to end his losing streak that now is at 134, fans have no right to complain.
Neither do the drivers.
"That's short-track racing," Newman said. "We can be the best drivers in the world driving Sprint Cup stock cars or running hobby stocks and the exact same thing would have happened."
Even Gordon, after a few minutes to calm down from seeing his win turn into a 14th-place finish, realized nobody really was to blame.
You can't blame Reutimann for getting in every lap possible to keep the No. 10 in the Top 35. That's basically his job so Danica Patrick won't have to worry about getting into the field at Darlington Raceway the next time she drives a Cup car, in May.
You can't blame Bowyer for dive-bombing Gordon for the win, and you can't blame Newman for getting into the back of Bowyer trying to improve his position.
Maybe it was stupid in hindsight, realizing that you can't go three-wide at Martinsville, that if you hit the curb going that low as Bowyer did nothing good will come of it.
But these drivers are paid to win races, not sit back and settle for second or third. They're paid to take chances with a Hail Mary pass just like they do in the NFL.
"There are no guarantees at this place," Gordon said. "Anytime they stack them up like that you know it is going to get ugly in the first couple of corners.
You know, I kind of expected something to happen. It's just a shame to finish like that. But, hey, that's racing.
”-- Rick Hendrick
"I was just hoping to get a decent start. I got a good jump, but then the tires spun. I didn't know if Clint had a big run or what happened. I guess he got a run and then the No. 39 gave him a pretty big shot. It pretty much took us all out there."
But at least the garage was full of wrecked cars with donuts on the side like we expect at half-mile bullrings such as Martinsville, not clean like they were two weeks ago at Bristol.
At least tempers flared and drivers said things they wouldn't say in front of their children.
That's what everybody wants, right?
"The green-white-checkered finishes, they're OK," Earnhardt said after a third-place finish that vaulted him to second in the point standings, only six behind Greg Biffle. "I was really OK with the racing at the end, Clint going for the win.
"That's racing to me. I just don't like how the caution came out."
He's got a point in that Reutimann stayed out about four laps too long. Had he parked earlier he probably would have lost just one point with only Kyle Busch within 80 laps of him. He likely wouldn't have gained more than one point by staying out.
A two-point swing isn't much when you consider how much it cost the HMS drivers bracing for a 1-2-3 finish.
"It's just unfortunate when some stupid, last-ditch effort, dive-bomb or something along those lines wipes you out," Johnson said. "But when you race long enough, you know that stuff happens.
"My frustration and certainly Jeff's is to be the class of the field all day long and be up front and have something stupid like this take us out. We want to get this 200th win for Rick real bad and we could have been 1-2 today easily."
But frustration is part of the allure of short-track racing. It's why Speedway Motorsports Inc.'s Bruton Smith is looking at resurfacing Bristol to the way it was before 2007, when beating and banging were the norm.
Said Martin Feigen of Atlanta in an email shortly after the race: "The finish at Martinsville got myself and fans excited. The beating and the
banging got me off the couch yelling at the TV.
"That is what Bristol used to have, and what NASCAR needs. After that race I am excited to see what happens at the next race in Texas. NASCAR needs more of those style finishes to get fans excited about the next race."
When you have racing with finishes like there was at Martinsville, it's not unusual for the winner to be overlooked in columns and stories. Drama often trumps wins.
Newman was OK with that. He joked that Hendrick's 200th win was "under the hood." When noted how impressive it is that 11 of his 16 career wins have come at different tracks, he kidded that he could win more but wanted to spread his out to give others a chance.
But he's not about to give the grandfather clock trophy, prize money or points back. He's had wins taken away down the stretch, just like the one he stole on this picture-perfect day.
So has Hendrick, which is why he wasn't torn up about the way his cars were torn up.
"You know, I kind of expected something to happen," he said. "You know, it's been that way for the last few weeks, but the cars all ran good. It's just a shame to finish like that.
"But, hey, that's racing."