The only way Denny Hamlin could have timed his recent tear better is if it had taken place in the crucial stages of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Whatever the timing, momentum appears to be on Hamlin’s side as the regular season draws to a close.
Hamlin carries a two-race win streak into Richmond International Raceway, one of his best tracks, for Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC), the final event before NASCAR’s 10-race postseason Chase. The native of nearby Chesterfield, Va., clinched at least a share of the top seed for the playoffs with his series-best fourth win last weekend at Atlanta.
“You know, you wish you could bottle it up and take these (last two) wins and put them in the Chase,” Hamlin said after prevailing in Sunday’s AdvoCare 500.Â “But they are worth something, they’re worth six (bonus) points, and we’ve gained six points in the Chase. That’s six spots. That’s hard to come by here and there. These guys know more than anything what one point matters when it comes to the Chase.”
Hamlin has won two of the last three September events at the .75-mile track, but his confidence might stem from the support system around his Joe Gibbs Racing team.
New crew chief Darian Grubb, who orchestrated Tony Stewart’s spirited march to the Sprint Cup title last season, has injected life into the No. 11 Toyota, helping Hamlin win on short tracks (Bristol), one-mile flat tracks (Phoenix) and 1.5-mile intermediate speedways (Kansas, Atlanta). In the pit box, Hamlin’s crew has also been stellar, sealing the Atlanta victory with a clutch late-race stop that put their driver in front for the final restart.
“I’m just happy to be at the race track every single week knowing I can win a race,” Hamlin said. “It doesn’t matter the race track any more, it’s just I know we can win. Darian has just taken this program to that next level, and obviously anyone can go on a 10-race run. He did it last year, and hopefully he’s got some of the magic saved up for us here in the next few weeks.”
Kyle Busch has been similarly magical at Richmond, but oddly enough, the track’s mid-spring event — which he’s won four years running — has been kinder to Hamlin’s JGR stablemate. Busch ranks second in driver rating over the last 15 Sprint Cup races at Richmond, behind only Hamlin.
Busch will need to draw on his Richmond expertise as the hunt for wild-card spots reaches its tipping point. With just one race left before the Chase, the top nine drivers in the Sprint Cup standings are locked into the postseason, with the 10th — Stewart — assured of at least a wild-card berth.
The jockeying for the two wild-card spots, which go to the drivers in positions 11-20 with the most wins, remains mathematically an eight-horse race. Should Stewart tumble out of the top 10, his three wins on the season would comfortably land him in the Chase through the wild card. Kasey Kahne (two wins, 11th in points) and Busch (one win, 12th in points) hold the provisional wild-card slots heading to the regular-season finale, but a Richmond victory from a host of one-win drivers — Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano — would endanger Busch’s chances.
“I’m not saying that I’m for sure going to be in (the Chase) because anything can happen,” Busch said. “Jeff (Gordon) is no slouch at Richmond either — he will be fine. I feel like that’s the guy we’re racing — the 24 car. We’ll just have to see how it all plays out. Jeff could give us a run for our money.”
NATIONWIDE RACE A TWO-CAR TANDEM
This season’s NASCAR Nationwide Series title hunt is beginning to have a 2011 look and feel to it. This year’s fight between current points leader Elliott Sadler and defending series champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. might be a more evenly matched contest.
The heavyweight battle for Sadler and Stenhouse hits Richmond International Raceway for Friday night’s Virginia 529 College Savings 250 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Just 12 points separate Sadler from second-place Stenhouse, with Sam Hornish Jr. 32 points off the lead in third.
How even is Sadler-Stenhouse matchup? Each driver has four wins, three pole positions and 18 top-10 finishes in 24 races this season.
“I think all of the race tracks that we have left are ones that we run really strong on, but the problem is the 2 (Sadler) runs really strong on them as well, so I don’t think either one of us really has an advantage as far as the race tracks go,” Stenhouse said after winning last Saturday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“They’ve got great equipment. We’ve got great equipment and it’s just going to be who doesn’t make as many mistakes. We’ve got to make sure we do our job on pit road. I’ve got to do my job on the track and we just have to keep everything together and double-check everything that we do because it’s going to be a tough battle.”
Neither Sadler nor Stenhouse has won at Richmond, but neither has a Nationwide series regular in the last 17 races on the .75-mile track. The last driver not doing double duty to win at Richmond was Johnny Sauter in September 2003.
Sprint Cup drivers Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — all former Richmond winners in the series — are on the entry list for Friday’s 250-lapper. Travis Pastrana, who led his first laps in the series last weekend at Atlanta, will make his first start for Roush Fenway Racing in the No. 60 Ford.