Denny Hamlin spent last Sunday sitting impatiently inside the Sprint Cup garage, a fried engine and a last-place finish leading to lasting questions about both the reliability of his car and his confidence with one race remaining before the Chase. Turns out there’s no better fix for both than racing at his hometown track.
Hamlin dominated Saturday’s Air Guard 400 at Richmond, completing his worst-to-first transition by leading 251 of 400 laps for a second straight triumph in the fall event. Holding off a late charge by teammate Kyle Busch, he ended a personal two-month winless streak, earning the Chase’s top seed in the process with his sixth victory of the season. It’s the first time the native Virginian’s held the point lead during a roller-coaster five-year Cup career.
Talk about one heck of a quick turnaround.
“I definitely feel like we spent the last two weeks trying to gauge where we are going to be, and we brought what we had in the shop and said, ‘We are going to try to start our Chase early,’” he said afterwards. “I feel like we have done that. We could have had two wins in a row going into the Chase, but last week is in the past and right now, I just feel really confident in the team.”
Starting 14th, Hamlin calmly picked off traffic and assumed the lead by lap 111, fighting with Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards up front before gradually assuming control. In a race that had only three cautions, he steadily pulled away for most of a 159-lap green-flag run to the finish, passing Juan Pablo Montoya to assume the point for the final time with 68 to go. While Montoya’s short-pit strategy briefly put him out front, the Colombian faded on older tires late, dropping to seventh while a last-stop adjustment saw Busch charging up through the field to challenge the No. 11. He got to Hamlin’s rear bumper inside the last 20 circuits, leading to some hard-fought racing but ultimately winding up a half-second short to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, permanently handicapped by a 32nd-place starting spot for the race.
“I felt like the [No.] 11 was just a step ahead of us and they deserved to win,” he said, emphasizing a need to back off and ensure both cars finished the race. “They gave us our air pressure that we started running about mid-race, and we really started clicking off and going forward. We wanted to win, and we fought hard with Denny, but racing teammates clean like that, and not laying a bumper at all – just making sure that the Gibbs cars had a good, solid night so that we have everything on our side heading into the Chase here next weekend.”
That timid reaction from Busch fit the mold on a night where the competition was clean and quiet on this 3/4-mile oval; a record-tying low of three cautions, one for rain, produced an average speed of 104.096 mph, the highest here since Dale Jarrett won in September 1997. Only Terry Labonte retired due to an accident on a night where 38 of 43 cars finished, a clean race albeit devoid of the type of “make the Chase” drama that has been its staple in recent years.
Bowyer made sure that was snuffed out early, leading 33 of 199 laps and staying steadily within the top 10 en route to running sixth. He and Greg Biffle – who needed just a 42nd-place finish to advance – easily clinched the final two playoff spots over would-be challengers Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Mark Martin.
“I’m very excited,” was his enthusiastic response after exiting the car Saturday night. “After last year, to get all three cars in the Chase [for RCR] after none of us being in last year feels good. I feel like this is the best shot we’ve ever had since I’ve been there to win a championship.”
In the race, Johnson posted a solid third-place finish with Joey Logano and Tasmanian Marcos Ambrose rounding out the top five. It was the first ever 1-2-4 performance for JGR since expanding to three cars in 2005. Bowyer, Montoya, AJ Allmendinger, Kevin Harvick and polesitter Edwards rounded out the top-10 finishers. Early on, it appeared Edwards would be the car to beat, but the handling slowly went south after leading 95 laps early in the going.
“We were just no good on the long runs,” he stated. “Now, we need to go to Loudon and go for all the points we can get.”
Coming to the checkers right behind him was Newman, never mounting a charge and ultimately falling short of the playoffs in his second year with Stewart-Haas.
“We will not have a shot at the championship but an opportunity to win in 10 more races,” he said, shrugging off the near-miss. “And that’s a lot of fun in itself.”
For Hamlin, that excitement was palpable in victory lane Saturday night as he hopes to turn this momentum and propel it forward through the playoffs, starting with a 10-point edge over rival Johnson.
“Never through the course of my career have I ever like I could just win anywhere I went, until this year,” he said. “And especially at this point now, the confidence level is pretty high.”
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