In a season where no driver has been able to establish himself as a clear and lasting favorite for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, Denny Hamlin’s dominant win in Saturday night's Air Guard 400 at Richmond pushed him to the top of the favorites list for the second time this season.
This time he may be able to stay there.
In mid-June, Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing/Fed Ex Toyota team looked like world beaters. Back-to-back victories at Pocono and Michigan – their fourth and fifth wins in the first 15 starts – pushed them to third in the championship standings, just 47 points behind leader Kevin Harvick. They were the hottest team in NASCAR; hitting on all cylinders and serving notice that Jimmie Johnson’s drive for a fifth consecutive title would have to come through them.
Then the wheels fell off.
A 34th place finish on the road course at Infineon, followed by a lackluster 14th at New Hampshire and a 24th at Daytona effectively killed Hamlin’s momentum, and the #11 team spent the next two months trying to get their groove back. There was a brief mojo spotting last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Hamlin started on the pole and led seven times for 74 laps in the early going. But a blown engine on lap 143 – an engine JGR insiders now admit they may have “leaned on” a bit too hard in an effort to learn something for the Chase – relegated them to a crushing 43rd place finish.
As NASCAR rolled into Richmond last week for the final race of the 2010 regular season, Hamlin and crewchief Mike Ford desperately needed something positive to hang their hats on.
Hamlin was a contender from start to finish and a dominator down the stretch, shrugging off a late race challenge from teammate Kyle Busch to claim his sixth victory of the year; breaking a tie with Johnson for most wins and boosting himself into sole possession of the points lead heading into this weekend's Chase opener in New Hampshire. It’s the first time he has ever held the top spot in the points parade, and in Victory Lane Saturday, Hamlin expressed no desire to give it up, ever again.
"We're tough right now,'' he said. “We've got the most wins and… at this point, I'd say we could win at all of (the Chase tracks).'
"Never through the course of my career have I felt that anywhere I show up, I can win,'' said Hamlin. "Other than a road course -- and I feel I could run top five there -- I've never felt like I can win anywhere I went, until this year. At this point, the confidence level is pretty high.''
Hamlin’s swagger has not gone unnoticed by the competition.
"They have found something lately,” admitted Jeff Gordon, who will begin his 2010 Chase
sixth in points. “I don't know what it is, but they have found something. If they can keep that going into the Chase, they are going to be very, very tough.”
Johnson said he also sees Hamlin as a primary roadblock to his fifth consecutive title. "I look more to how he ran in the Chase last year,'' said the Lowes Chevrolet driver. "He was very, very strong through all of those races, but had a problem at California that took him out. (It’s) always been a reality to me that he's going to be one of the guys to race for it.''
Hamlin enters the Chase with six wins and 10 top-five finishes; both career highs at this point of the season. And if past history is any indicator, the best is yet to come. He has shown a knack for peaking come playoff time, with a career average finish of 9.6 in the final five races of the season.
"I wanted to get aggressive and come out swinging,'' said crewchief Mike Ford in Victory Lane. Tonight we gained some momentum, (but) we're still going to race like we're 40th (in points). We're going to stay aggressive.''
"We spent the last two weeks trying to gauge where we are going to be (in the Chase),” said Hamlin. "We said we were going to try to start our Chase early. That way, when we got to Loudon, we would be in the swing of our momentum, not trying to falsely start it.
“I feel like we have done that."
If Hamlin and company have learned anything this season, it’s that momentum comes and goes. But their win at Richmond serves notice to all who care to listen that they will be a force to reckon with for the 2010 championship.
This time, they’re in it to win it.