Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin snared his season-leading sixth race victory at Richmond International Raceway along with the top seed in the 12-driver, 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup that begins Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The Chesterfield, Va., wheelman took his second victory in his last three starts as well as his fifth top-five and sixth top-10 race finish in his home state. He will make his third straight and fourth Chase for the Sprint Cup appearance of his six-year career owning a total of 10 top-five and 11 top-10 finishes.

His Richmond triumph provides his No. 11 team much needed momentum coming off a 43rd-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway where he led 251 of 400 laps. He placed in a race top five in three of his past seven starts, but his average finish in races where he did not make the top five was 32nd.

"I definitely feel like we spent the last two weeks trying to gauge where we are going to be. We brought what we had in the shop and said we are 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've done that. We could have had two wins in a row going into the Chase, but last week is in the past.

"Right now, I just feel really confident in the team. We have won at, I don't know, probably three or four of the Chase tracks during the course of my career and that's encouraging. The thing is, never through the course of my career have I ever felt that anywhere I show up, I could win. Other than the exception of a road course, I feel like I can run in the top five, but I've never felt like I could just win anywhere I went until this year. At this point, the confidence level is pretty high," Hamlin said. He placed 14th in this season's June 27 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He rolled to a victory at the track on July 1, 2007 and has generated a total of three top-five and six top-10 finishes in the Granite State through nine career starts.

Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick finished the 26-race pre-Chase docket with the championship lead by collecting three victories and a total of 11 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes. He will open the Chase for the Sprint Cup tied for third in the standings with Kyle Busch and sitting 30 points behind Hamlin.

Harvick's ninth-place Richmond finish represented his fourth top-10 finish in his past seven starts. He captured fifth in the June New Hampshire race and has netted a Sept. 17, 2008 victory along with a total four top-five and 10 top-10 finishes there in 19 career starts. He makes his third career Chase for the Sprint Cup appearance looking to improve on his career-best fourth-place championship showings from 2008 and 2006. "How it all plays out, I don't know. I think it's the most competitive that we have ever been as far as speed and the things that you need to race for wins and winning the championship. I feel you're going to have to finish in the top five a lot and you're going to have to win a race or two to make that happen. This is the first time we had not just been coming in and going seventh, eighth and ninth. We have been able to run races in the top five," Harvick said.

Four-time and defending Chase for the Sprint Cup winner Jimmie Johnson is in thick of the title hunt once again. He will start the 10-race stretch ranked second in the standings and 10 points behind Hamlin.

Johnson finished the pre-Chase schedule second in series victories with five along with a total of 10 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes. He earned his second consecutive third-place finish of the season at Richmond International Raceway. His third-place Atlanta Motor Speedway effort on Sept. 5 stopped a seven-race stint in which he posted an average 23rd-place finish.

He has the chance to start this season's championship charge on solid footing after taking a June New Hampshire victory. He has placed in the top 10 in seven straight New Hampshire starts and has banked a total of three victories, including two straight in 2003, along with a total of six top-five and 12 top-10 finishes.

The driver who has finished in the top two in five and no lower than fifth in his six career Chase appearances, knows it will take superior consistency to emerge with a fifth consecutive series championship.

"I think this year it's really tough because you have some streaky guys and the 29 (Harvick) and 24 (Jeff Gordon) that have been really consistent. I don't know how to handicap it or who to fear the most because everyone has it in them.

"Looking at the last month, the 99 (Carl Edwards), 18 (Kyle Busch), 11, hopefully us and the 29, I think you have five or six cars that can really race for the championship. When you get outside of that, I think there are some guys that are finding speed. We saw the 16 (Greg Biffle) at Pocono. Clint (Bowyer) and his team seem to be collecting a lot of points and running well. I know the 2 (Kurt Busch) has it in him and he has some good tracks coming up," Johnson said.

Bowyer sealed the 12th and final Chase position with solid sixth-place Richmond result that marked his third consecutive top-10 finish of the season. While the last seed, Bowyer is 60 points behind Hamlin along with Gordon, Edwards, Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth.

Bowyer enters the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the third time in his career and first time since he placed fifth in 2008. He took his career-best third-place Chase finish in 2007. He likes embarking on this season's championship journey outside the spotlight.

"For us, as the last car going in, we have nowhere else to go but up. Nobody expects you to do anything in the Chase, you are the last car in and it is fun to race that way. That is the way it was in '07. You don't have any pressure. You go out and have fun each and every week and the results come. It is just so much easier to race that way.

"Consistency always wins championships. I think it is going to be even more crucial this time around. You don't have dominant race cars like you did the last couple of years with Jimmie Johnson and the Hendrick Motorsports camp.

"You are actually seeing Superman (Johnson) struggle a little bit and everybody has caught up to them. Everybody has learned from them and the pace they set. I really do believe going into Homestead, you are going to have three or four to six cars with a legit shot for the championship. I just think that is how close the racing is these days. The one that can stay the most consistent is going to be the one that comes out on top," Bowyer said.

A total of 12 Sprint Cup Series championships will be represented in this season's Chase field: Kurt Busch (2004); Gordon (2001, 1998, 1997, 1995); Johnson (2009, 2008, 2007, 2006), Kenseth (2003) and Tony Stewart (2005, 2002).

Here are the Chase for the Sprint Cup seedings: Hamlin (JGR/Toyota / Leader); Johnson (Hendrick/Chevrolet / -10 pts); Harvick (RCR / Chevrolet / - 30); Kyle Busch (JGR/Toyota / - 30); Kurt Busch (Penske / Dodge / - 40); Stewart (Stewart Haas / Chevrolet / - 50); Biffle (Roush Fenway / Ford / - 50); Gordon (Hendrick / Chevrolet / - 60); Edwards (Roush Fenway / Ford / -60); Burton (RCR / Chevrolet / - 60); Kenseth (Roush Fenway / Ford / - 60) and Bowyer (RCR /Chevrolet / - 60).

Ryan Newman finished 13th in the 26-race standings.

Coverage of the Sept. 19 New Hampshire Motor Speedway race is set for a 1:00 p.m., start on ESPN and noon start on Performance Racing Network radio and Sirius XM 128.

Story by Mike Schmaltz

~Kentucky Speedway~