Denny Hamlin Wins Again at Martinsville, Trails Jimmie Johnson by Six Points
The victory, Hamlin's third in a row at Martinsville, allowed him to pull within six points of Jimmie Johnson in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. It's the closest margin between first and second in the Chase since the playoff format was instituted in 2004.
Hamlin took the checkered flag by 2.318 seconds over Mark Martin, who made up two laps and was charging toward the front at the end. Harvick finished third after leading most of the later laps of the race. Kyle Busch finished fourth, followed by Jimmie Johnson.
It was Hamlin's seventh win this year and his 15th career victory. He's now won three in a row at Martinsville and four in all.
"We are back, baby!" Hamlin shouted on his radio as he crossed the finish line. "Awesome job! Great job of adjusting the car. It was the best it's been all day long. Pit crew, you did it right there. You got me out. Thanks, guys. Relentless, relentless job, guys."
In victory lane, Hamlin said, "I don't think I've ever closed that well, ever. We did not have a race-winning car until the very end. My pit crew got me from sixth to third before the last restart and that was the key."
The fact that the last 98 laps of the race were run under the green flag made all the difference for Hamlin.
A caution-free stretch of 100 laps at the end of a race at a half-mile short track like Martinsville is a rarity. In fact, there were 15 yellow flags totaling 90 laps in the first 400 laps -- or a caution period about every 27 laps. And then there were no more.
"This was probably the most gratifying win I have had so far, because we didn't have the best car all day," Hamlin said. "We just fought and fought and fought all day. I needed that last long run. Our car was really, really good on the long runs, but we just never got them. We had so many cautions. We just never had the speed that those guys had during the first 10 or 20 laps of the run.
"I knew on the long haul that our car typically is really, really good. I was just praying the last 20 laps that there wasn't a yellow and obviously it helped us."
Hamlin fell to as low as 15th place in the first 100 laps. "We just had a bad set of tires on that first run," Hamlin said. "We've had those issues at start of races before, though. That's why I didn't panic. I just said, 'Let's just get to the second set of tires.' And then if I'm way off, I might get concerned."
Wherever Hamlin was on the track during the race, Johnson seemed to be right there with him. In fact, the separation between them was almost never greater than at the end.
For instance, on lap 141, when Hamlin was fifth, Johnson was sixth. After pit stops on lap 291, Hamlin was 11th while Johnson was 13th. On lap 334, Hamlin was eighth, followed by Johnson in ninth.
"Someone had a chain connected to our car all day," Hamlin said. "We were racing around each other all afternoon. Considering our reputation here (Johnson or Hamlin has won every race here since the fall of 2006), obviously everyone figured that one of the two of us had to win here. And I figured during most of the race, neither of us was going to finish in the top five. But I just knew that by the end, (crew chief) Mike (Ford) was going to get this thing tuned in."
Hamlin led twice for a total of 40 laps, including the final 30 laps. Jeff Burton fell to ninth at the end after leading 134 laps - the most of any driver. Johnson never led a lap.
"We certainly wanted to be better today with the Lowe's Impala, but the long run there at the end just wasn't what our car needed at that point in time," Johnson said. "On the short runs, we were a lot better and more competitive. But another top five -- we can't be too disappointed in that."
Said Hamlin: "It's good to come away gaining points. I think this was a 'must-finish-in-front-of (Johnson) day.' I couldn't lose points to him -- not at this race track. We've run way too good here the last few years to lose points at this race track. The alternative is probably 50 or 60 points behind if the race goes the way we ran all day."
"Given how I've raced over the course of the Chase so far, this is about the best-case scenario so far," Hamlin said. "I do not like playing defense at all. I like coming from behind and chasing a guy."
The Chase now moves to Talladega next weekend and the most unpredictable event of the 10-race playoff.
But at this point, with four races remaining, it appears as if the Chase is down to three drivers -- Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick, who trails the leader by 62 points.
Kyle Busch is still within shouting distance at 172 points behind, but the rest of the Chasers are all more than 200 points behind. Jeff Gordon, who had a decent run ruined when he was intentionally wrecked by Kurt Busch, finished 20th and is now 203 points behind Johnson, holding fifth place. Carl Edwards is sixth (-213), followed by Tony Stewart (-236), Jeff Burton (-246), Kurt Busch (-277) and Matt Kenseth (-293). Greg Biffle is 11th (-316) and Clint Bowyer is at the bottom, 406 points behind.
"Nobody knows (what's going to happen) once we go to Talladega next week," Hamlin said. "But I do know we've been extremely strong at Talladega the last two or three years, so I'm pretty confident."