Hamlin Cleans Sprint Cup Clock at Martinsville
Chase for the Sprint Cup second-place contender Denny Hamlin vaulted to within six points of championship leader Jimmie Johnson by scoring a third straight and fourth career Martinsville Speedway victory today.
Hamlin waited out a front-of-the-pack battle between Richard Childress Racing teammates Kevin Harvick in the No. 29 and Jeff Burton in the No. 31 before seizing the race lead for the second time on Lap 471 of 500 by passing Harvick on the frontstretch.
Hamlin opened a 1.4-second lead in his No. 11 on Lap 484 and closed out a race-ending 99-lap green-flag run by taking the checkered flag 2.318-seconds ahead of Mark Martin in No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports machine. Harvick closed out the race third, Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch placed fourth in the No. 18 and Johnson rounded out the Martinsville top five in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48.
"It was unbelievable. I don't think I've ever closed that well, ever. We kept working. We didn't have a race-winning car all day until the very end. (Crew Chief) Mike (Ford) and those guys just adjusted, adjusted and the pit crew got me from sixth to third on that last restart (on Lap 402). That was the key, bottom line.
"I was hoping the 31 and 29 would use their stuff up racing each other and I was sitting there trying to be patient with those rear tires. I just saved it for the end. This is one of my most gratifying victories because we fought through so much," Hamlin said after ripping off his second victory, fourth top-five and sixth top-10 finish in his past seven starts and gaining 35 Chase points on Johnson.
Martin started the race 21st and rallied to chart his best finish of the season. The resilient veteran effort resulted in his second top-10 finish in his past three starts and first top-five performance since his fourth-place showing at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 30. He now owns six top-five and nine top-10 finishes this season along with a total of 12 top-five and 24 top-10 Martinsville finishes through 46 career starts on the 0.526-mile oval.
"It was so much fun and it was such a bad day. I was running out of brakes on Lap 30 and I thought it was going to be the longest day of my life. I want to thank (Crew Chief) Alan Gustafson and all these guys at Hendrick Motorsports. It's a great run for us, we needed that. I'm not mad we didn't win, I'm glad we ran second. We were two laps down and I thought we were going to be 28th. What an incredible racecar. Another 20 laps and we could've caught them," Martin said.
Harvick remains third in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings after picking up 15 points and moving within 62 points of the lead. He has earned 14 top-five and a total of 22 top-10 finishes this season and locked down three top-five and six top-10 finishes in the past seven series events.
"The guys on pit road were awesome today; they really kept us up front and in the race. That's what we have to do. We kept the 48 behind us and the 11 in sight. Everybody said it was a two-horse race (today) and we were right there in the middle of it. It's a lot of fun right now. We have four more weeks. We're looking forward to Talladega and racing hard," Harvick said.
Despite surrendering valuable championship ground to his two nearest pursuers, the four-time defending series champion Johnson was satisfied with his fourth straight and sixth top-five finish in his past seven starts.
"It was a good day. We were much stronger in the short run than we were in the long run and the way this thing unfolded in the end there were a lot of long runs and we lost a few spots. For a while there, I thought the 29, the 11 and us were going to ride together all day long. Then, there at the end, the 11 got going, took off and won the thing. It was a solid performance, something we can't be disappointed in. We wish we were a little bit better, but there's a lot of racing left," said Johnson, who owns 15 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes this season.
The series races at the ever-eventful Talladega Speedway on Halloween afternoon. Race coverage will begin at noon on Motor Racing Network radio and Sirius XM 128. ESPN's coverage will take the green flag at 1:00 p.m.
Story by Mike Schmaltz