Hamlin Is Top Gun

by Monte Dutton

RICHMOND, Va. — Contrary to popular belief, the Chase for the Sprint Cup did, in fact, change during the Air Guard 400. Not the composition. The order.

Denny Hamlin, by winning at Richmond International Raceway, nailed down the top seed. By virtue of 60 bonus points, 10 for each of his victories to date, Hamlin will begin the Chase with 5,060 points, 10 more than the winner of the past four championships, Jimmie Johnson.

Ten points are insignificant over the span of the 10-race Chase. For that matter, Hamlin’s 60-point edge over the five winless Chase drivers is relatively small.

But, noted Hamlin, it’s something. He said winning six races, more than anyone else this season, was proof his team’s quality and evidence that it would contend for the championship.

But, he added, “Your momentum ends as soon as you go to the next race track, as far as I’m concerned.”

Hamlin, 29, has made the Chase in each of his five full seasons. His latest victory was the 14th of his career. His previous Chase finishes, beginning in 2006, were third, 12th , eighth and fifth.

“I’ve made a lot of these Chases and made a lot of mistakes through these Chases,” he said. “Every year I feel like we learn something. I feel like this year I’m as clear as I’ve ever been and we’re winning at race tracks where we don’t usually win.”

Kevin Harvick won the regular-season point race by a wide (228-point) margin, but that means little once the Chase begins on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Harvick has won three races to date, meaning that he opens the Chase trailing Hamlin by 30.

The Chase qualifiers, with points as reconfigured, are Hamlin (5,060), Johnson (5,050), Harvick (5,030), Kyle Busch (5,030), Kurt Busch (5,020), Tony Stewart (5,010), Greg Biffle (5,010), Jeff Gordon (5,000), Carl Edwards (5,000), Jeff Burton (5,000), Matt Kenseth (5,000) and Clint Bowyer (5,000).

Four drivers who won races — Jamie McMurray (2), Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya and David Reutimann — failed to qualify for the Chase.

Monte Dutton has covered motorsports for The Gaston (NC) Gazette since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008. His blog NASCAR This Week ( features all of his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Monte at ‘© 2010 King Features Syndicate

Denny Hamlin celebrates winning the Air Guard 400 at Richmond International Raceway, which gave him the top seed for the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup. (Photo: Getty Images)