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Hamlin scores win, narrows point gap
by Matt Taliaferro
Denny Hamlin claimed to have been biding his time, keeping points leader Jimmie Johnson within drafting distance and waiting to get to the second half of the Chase with its Hamlin-friendly venues. Martinsville was to be Stop No. 1 on the Hamlin Express tour, and thus far, the plan is going extremely well.
Hamlin sat on the pole, led 40 laps and had the car dialed in when it mattered en route to winning the Tums Fast Relief 500, his third consecutive victory at Martinsville Speedway. The triumph narrowed the Chase landscape, as Hamlin finds himself six points behind Johnson in the title hunt. Johnson finished fifth at Martinsville, while Kevin Harvick kept pace with both drivers by virtue of a third-place run to stay within 62 points of Johnson.
"I think it was a ‘must finish in front of’ race," Hamlin said. "I couldn’t lose points to him [Johnson], not at this racetrack. We’ve run too good here the last few years to lose points to him at this racetrack. Literally, I just kept him and the 29 [Harvick] in my sights all day long."
The win was Hamlin’s series-best seventh of the season and his first of the Chase. The Virginia native had been strong in the five previous playoff events — not having finished worse than 12th — but Johnson had managed to finish in front of Hamlin each week save one and was on a run of four consecutive top-three showings. Simply put, Johnson was winning the battle of "anything you can do, I can do better."
That changed at Martinsville, where Hamlin arrived with a swagger not seen since a regular-season finale win in Richmond, another home-state track for the fifth-year Joe Gibbs Racing pilot. The race was not without peril, though. Hamlin slid out of the top 10 at the drop of the green, battling a car that he admitted to feeling some reservations about on race morning.
A caution on lap 49 and the 14 other yellows that followed throughout the afternoon provided plenty of time to tweak his Toyota. After the final caution on lap 398, Harvick, Jeff Burton and Hamlin cruised away from the field to settle the event amongst one another. Hamlin was able to complete the pass of Harvick with 29 circuits remaining and held on for his 15th career Cup victory.
Mark Martin and Kyle Busch separated the three points leaders — Martin finishing second after scooting by Harvick with four to go and Busch passing Johnson for fourth with 26 laps remaining.
"That’s what we have to do," Harvick said of his team’s third-place run. "Coming into this race, no one gave us a chance to even run anywhere towards the front. So it’s nice to come here, get the finishes we feel like we deserve, that we’ve run well over the last few years, [but] just hadn’t got the finishes to show for it."
"I really felt like he had a chance to win the race here," Johnson said of Hamlin going into the race. "You can’t argue with stats [and] the speed that he and that team have had here over the years.
"[Hamlin] did a good job of stepping up to all the talk. He did a great job today. For a long time I thought the 29, the 11 and us were going to finish in sequential order — we were around each other all day long. That last stop at the end, those guys found a little something and got going."
The Sprint Cup circuit hits the high banks and restrictor-plate madness of Talladega next Sunday for the race that every Chase contender fears. Harvick won at the 2.66-mile tri-oval in April in a race most agree is a crapshoot.
"I’m really trying to not be emotionally attached to [the points lead] until we get out of Talladega," Johnson said. "So much can happen at Talladega. [There are] three races left after that. If we’re close, we’ll race like hell."