With teammate Kyle Busch out of his way, the path is a lot clearer.
Hamlin scored his breakthrough victory at home
track Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night to take a burst
of momentum into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Busch, his teammate, was
shut out of the title hunt because his fifth-place finish wasn't enough
to get him into the 12-driver field.
Although it was a bittersweet night for Joe Gibbs Racing, Hamlin felt as if he'd just won the Daytona 500.
"I know how special that race is to everyone,"
he said of NASCAR's biggest race of the year. "But this one in
particular, to me, especially after all the heartbreak … it's by far
the biggest win of my career and hopefully goes a long way for this
race team over the next 10 weeks."
He'll take the momentum into New Hampshire next weekend, when the 10-race Chase begins.
Busch, who tied with Mark Martin this season
with a series-best four victories, thought he'd be a part of the field.
But he was shut out after an inconsistent season.
"We did all we can do. We gave a valiant
effort and it was a good night," Busch said. "We will live to see
another day. We'll go on for the rest of the year."
The final spot went instead to Brian Vickers,
who knocked both Busch and Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth out of
contention with a career-best seventh-place run. He finished eight
points ahead of Busch in the tightest Chase buildup since its 2004
The one-time teammates feuded last month at
Michigan, but raced each other cleanly the last two weeks as they
jockeyed for the final Chase berth. There was no ill-will between them
after Vickers grabbed the last spot in a frantic finish. Busch extended
a hand to shake and said, "Good job," as Vickers entered the post-race
"It's no secret that him and I don't always
see eye-to-eye and don't always get along," Vickers said. "But I have
to say the past two weeks, we raced really hard, but very clean. Maybe
we'll be fine and maybe we won't. But we have been fine the past couple
Hamlin, with the momentum of his Richmond
win, believes he's the favorite to win the Sprint Cup title. He twice
before led the most laps at Richmond, where he sat in the stands as a
child rooting on boyhood idol Bill Elliott, only to have late pitfalls
sabotage his shot at victory.
Now he's got his Richmond win, his second of the season, and a ton of confidence headed into the Chase.
"They better watch us," he vowed. "I am telling you, this team is dangerous."
Mark Martin, who at 50 is enjoying one of the
best seasons of his career, leads the Chase field as the top seed and
is followed by Tony Stewart and three-time defending champion Jimmie
Hamlin starts the Chase in fourth and is
followed by Kasey Kahne, three-time series champion Jeff Gordon, Kurt
Busch and Brian Vickers, who finished a career-best seventh Saturday
night to grab the final qualifying spot.
Carl Edwards will start the Chase in ninth and is followed by Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya and Greg Biffle.
Busch and Matt Kenseth, who had made the Chase in each of its first five seasons, were the two drivers shut out of the field.
It made for a compelling night of racing,
where 11 drivers vied for the final eight available spots in NASCAR's
On the bubble was Kenseth, the Daytona 500
winner, who started the race in the 12th and final qualifying spot.
Vickers, charging hard the past 11 races, and Busch were right on his
But Kenseth struggled from the drop of the
green flag and quickly fell out of contention. Busch and Vickers
swapped the final spot multiple times over the 400 laps, setting up a
final 14-lap sprint to the finish.
Busch used a flawless final pit stop to beat
Vickers off of pit road, but he restarted the race sixth and could only
gain one spot on the track. He finished fifth and said he'll focus now
on helping Hamlin win a championship.
"I'll do my best to help Denny out and bring
Joe Gibbs Racing a championship," Busch said. "I think Denny has got a
lot going forward, especially winning here. He's going to have a big
momentum boost next week."
Vickers, who got upstart Red Bull Racing into its first Chase, promised a long night of celebrating.
"Right now, my focus is to move on from the
last 10 weeks. It's been a stressful period of my life, but just proud
of the effort," he said. "I'm genuinely going to party hard tonight,
I'm not kidding. Next week, the focus is to move on and win the
Kenseth, winner of the first two races this season, was shut out of the Chase for the first time since it started in 2004.
"Third race of the year, Las Vegas, we
finished last and it's been downhill from there," Kenseth said. "The
way we're running right now, even if we made it, we wouldn't have a
shot at the championship."