RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - An enormous American flag rippled in the breeze as it hung from a fully extended crane on the frontstretch of Richmond International Raceway for hours before Saturday night's race.
The flag served as a patriotic backdrop Saturday night while police and military bands performed as part of a pre-race ``Salute to America'' concert to honor the military and first responders on the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Fans were given small American flags as they entered the track, and several drivers did away with their traditional sponsor paint schemes to race in patriotic colors.
Kyle Busch's Toyota, which normally features images of his sponsor, m&ms, was painted to look like an American flag, and had the words ``9-11. Never Forget'' across the back.
Ryan Newman, whose team is sponsored by the U.S. Army, raced with a camouflage scheme and the names of all 75 people killed when a hijacked plane slammed into the Pentagon on the hood.
``To have those that were fallen soldiers in the Pentagon is something that is kind of a bittersweet thing to talk about because we want to give them recognition but they are no longer here to receive that recognition,'' Newman said. ``So it's about the families and the idea that the people make a sacrifice and it's something we all need to be grateful for, to respect our freedom and things we can do in our country. To have 75 names of people that lost their lives in that attack on 9-11 (on the car) is something that is bittersweet to talk about.''
The fans were encouraged to wave the flags during the pre-race concert, as well as while New York City police officer Danny Rodriguez sang ``God Bless America'' and the U.S. Army Infantry Division Band performed the national anthem. Wounded Warriors led the Pledge of Allegiance.
Fans also were encouraged to go silent on laps 9 through 11 to honor the victims, survivors and those that served in response to the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. The three laps of silence also was observed during the ABC telecast, and on the MRN radio broadcast.
It came during a caution after a crash involving numerous cars just beforehand.
Drivers have also shared stories of what they were doing when they heard about the attacks, and not surprisingly, many were doing things related to racing when they got the news.
Kurt Busch found out during a break in testing at a short track in South Carolina.
``I went into the hauler to grab a bite to eat for breakfast and turned on the TV and what I thought I was watching was just a what if this could happen tomorrow or a possible documentary on what is this and how can it happen and it was actually real,'' he said, calling it ``surreal.''
Denny Hamlin was underneath a race car near his home in Richmond, scrambling to get the car ready for a weekend race when he heard the news and said ``immediately everything just stopped.''
And Jeff Gordon said he was watching on TV in Florida, having heard that one place had crashed into the Twin Towers, when the second plane hit, sparking speculation on the news station he was watching about several possibilities before it became apparent it was terrorism.
``I think it's important for us to reflect on those that were lost, pay them tribute but also honor our military for what they have to go through and our police officers and firemen as well, what they have to go through to keep us protected and put their lives on the line,'' he said.
BAD START: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin, who both started the night clinging to spots in the Chase, sustained damage that required multiple pit stops before the race was 10 laps old.
After Clint Bowyer, who had an outside chance of making the Chase, spun and backed into the outside wall while racing for third, he tried to right the car and get moving again as the field closed in from behind. Instead, he pulled into traffic and stopped, causing a multicar pileup.
Hamlin's car hit the outside wall and sustained significant damage to the right side. He dropped to 40th place and went a lap down in the race he has won the last two years.
Earnhardt sustained front-end damage that threatened his radiator cooling system.
NOTHING DOIN': After Tony Stewart snapped at the media Friday when asked if he was feeling the pressure as one of 14 contenders for the last three spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Kurt Busch was asked what advice he'd give Stewart about the media.
``Really?'' said Busch, a former NASCAR bad boy who has mellowed in recent years. ``That's what you're asking? I'm supposed to give Tony Stewart advice? Let's go to the next question.''
START QUOTE: ``We can do this. All night long. 400 laps worth. We can do it.'' - Tony Stewart, who started the race in 10th place and needing to finish 18th or better to make the Chase for the championship, to his team on the radio before the race got started.

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