RICHMOND, Va._ Entering Saturday night’s race at Richmond International Raceway, the drivers gearing up for the Chase for the Sprint Cup looked to secure the final 10 bonus points before the standings were reset, while the rest of the field hoped to outshine those Chase contenders.
In what was hyped as a no-holds-barred event in which few had anything to lose, it was hometown favorite Denny Hamlin that scored the final win of the regular season. The victory was Hamlin’s sixth of the year and set him apart from the field to become the unequivocal points leader heading into the Chase.
While Hamlin dominated the relatively calm event, leading six times for a total of 251 laps, he had to hold off teammate Kyle Busch in the closing laps of Saturday night’s race. Working through lapped traffic, Busch charged to the back bumper of the No. 11 Toyota and put pressure on his teammate as they moved around slower cars. Stalking Hamlin through traffic, Busch was able to get a nose under Hamlin, but used up his equipment too early to get anything done.
As Busch’s tires faded, Hamlin kept his cool and drove away to score the win.
“To win these races nowadays, it takes more than just the fastest car with the best driver,” Hamlin said. “It's almost like a game of chess. It's really tough to figure out what it takes to win them, but it's about conserving and I feel like I've done a better job at doing that here.”
“I felt like the 11 was just a step ahead of us tonight and they deserved to win,” Busch said. “They gave us our air pressure that we started running about mid race, and we really started clicking off and going forward. It was good. We can't be disappointed in a second tonight.”
Taking the win, Hamlin demonstrated the strength his team showed earlier in the year when they won five races and emerged as a Chase favorite. Suffering poor luck and mechanical failures over the last few months, Hamlin slipped from being a front-runner to someone flying a bit under the radar.
Confident in his ability to get it done on the track, Hamlin knew if the team could simply put the mechanical failures behind them he could win the championship.
“We had that off week which was important for us to get our fleet of cars ready for the Chase,” Hamlin said. “At that point, we said, all right, we need to win more races starting right now. We need to pretend it's the Chase right now and do all we can to finish the best we can these next two weeks to get the team morale going and everything, because we had driveshaft issues and we had wrecks before that in the last ten weeks. Until we go out and perform like we know we can, as far as I'm concerned, we were going to finish 12th in points.
“I think the last two weeks have just shown where we stack up versus the competition hopefully,” he added.
While Hamlin emerged as one of the favorites for the 2010 title, his performance in the Chase last season showed his team was gearing up to be a contender for years to come. Taking the win in this race last year, Hamlin entered the 2009 Chase fourth and finished second in the opening race at Loudon. A wreck and two engine failures killed the team’s title hopes, but in the final five races Hamlin scored two wins and four top-3 finishes, proving without the trouble he would have been a contender.
“Denny Hamlin, I thought, was extremely strong the end of last year,” said Jeff Gordon. “I've actually been surprised at times this year that they haven't been stronger. But they are really coming into their own, showing their strength, and I think they are going to be really, really tough in the championship in these final ten.”
“The thing is never through the course of my career have I ever felt…that anywhere I show up, I could win,” Hamlin said. “Other than, the exception of a road course, I feel like I can run Top 5 there, but I've never felt like I could just win anywhere I went, until this year. And especially at this point now, the confidence level is pretty high.”
Although Hamlin has quickly reemerged as one of the favorites, some are still looking to four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson as the guy to beat over the next ten races. In his four year run as champion, Johnson has never led the standings at the end of the regular season, but always excelled when it mattered most over the final ten race stretch.
While many expect the No. 48 team to be strong in the next ten races, the competition level has picked up and this year’s Chase is gearing up to be one of the most unpredictable in years past.
“I feel like Jimmie has had an unbelievable ability to perform in the Chase and win championships, but I think all of these guys, everyone would agree that it's anyone's race more than ever this year,” said Carl Edwards. “It looks like advantages are smaller and they last a shorter period of time.”
“Superman has not lost his cape but it's shorter than it was in years past,” Clint Bowyer said with a smile. “So hopefully we'll all be able to give him a run for his money this year.”
“I think this year, it's really tough, because you have some streaky guys and the 29 that's been pretty consistent and the 24 that's been really consistent,” Johnson said. “I don't know how to handicap it or who to fear the most because everyone has it in them.”
Realizing the majority of teams are still looking at him as the team to beat, Johnson knows he simply has to go out there and do what he has done the last four years, not worry about what the competition believes.
“If guys think we are vulnerable, it's my job to show up at Loudon, qualify in the pole and win the race,” said Johnson. “That's what we need to do regardless. I'm not concerned about what people think of my race team and where I'm at and what kind of threat we are for the championship. I'm just more concerned about going out and getting the damn job done. That's what I need to focus on.”
Now the Chase is on and the complexion of the rest of the 2010 season hangs in the balance of the final ten events. Only 60 points separate Hamlin in first and Bowyer in 12th and if the level of competition already this season is any indication, it is truly anyone’s championship to win.
“You hate to sound like an idiot by saying you've just got to be better than the other 11 guys, but that's what it's going to come down to,” said Tony Stewart. “You're not going to be able to have a bad day. You're going to have to be good for ten straight weeks. You don't have that flexibility with this field to have an off night.”
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