Denny Hamlin the man to beat ... again
RICHMOND, Va. -- After 26 races, a lot of craziness from the "have at it, boys" edict and some of the best racing the Sprint Cup Series has seen in years, all is as many predicted it would be in February.
The driver from Chesterfield, Va., earned that right by winning Saturday night's regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway for the second straight year to give him six victories on the season and the points lead heading into the Chase.
He will start 10 points ahead of Johnson -- who finished third on a night that began with a lot of hype but ended with little drama -- next Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).
You could hear the confidence in Hamlin's voice as he was asked which of the 10 Chase tracks concerned him the most.
"At this point, I'd say we can win at all of them," he said.
Hamlin wasn't being cocky. He was just being as confident as he was Friday when telling reporters he would be a factor at the end as long as Joe Gibbs Racing gave him a car that would finish races.
There's good reason for that confidence, too. Hamlin has won on short tracks and intermediate tracks this season and run well at times on restrictor-plate tracks.
To be the champion, as Johnson has proved, you have to be good everywhere.
"I've been in a lot of these Chases," said Hamlin, who finished third as a rookie in 2006. "I've made a lot of mistakes. Every year I feel like I've learned something. This year I'm more prepared than ever."
The patience Hamlin showed saving his tires and outdueling Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch over the final 50 laps Saturday showed a maturity that could be the difference.
He even sounded more mature explaining it.
"It's so much more than what people can see on TV," Hamlin said. "It's so tough and mentally tough to see a guy barreling down on you with 40 laps to go and force yourself to not go any harder than you know your car can go.
"To win these races it takes more than the fastest car with the best driver. It's almost like a game of chess."
At times Hamlin says things that makes crew chief Mike Ford shake his head at in disbelief. When he said this past summer that only one or two of his cars were fast, Ford said his young daughter knew more about cars than his driver.
But on the patience it takes to win the title, Ford totally agrees with Hamlin.
He also agrees that getting through the first half of the Chase is the key to having a chance. If you remember, Hamlin was in this situation a year ago, winning this race to enter the playoff with the momentum of three straight top-10s.
His championship hopes ended four races into the Chase with a crash at California and blown engine the following week at Charlotte. But two wins in the final five races and a strong 2-3-1 finish over the final three made Hamlin the talk of the sport this preseason.
"If we can get through those first two or three races and keep cars together and not make mistakes, then absolutely I think we can compete with anyone," Ford said.
We shouldn't be surprised. Hamlin dominated from the sixth through the 15th race this season, winning five times to erase a shaky start. He started showing a confidence far beyond what we've seen before. Bad finishes over the past month when he had cars capable of better didn't shake that feeling like it might have in the past.
"The thing is, never through the course of my career did I ever feel anywhere I show up I can win," Hamlin said. "Other than the exception of a road course -- I feel I can run top-5 there -- I never felt I could just win anywhere I went until this year.
"Especially at this point now, the confidence level is pretty high."
Hamlin often gets overshadowed by Busch because he's not as flashy or controversial -- and some might say talented. A few weeks ago at Bristol the sport was gushing about Busch becoming the first driver in NASCAR to win the Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series race in the same weekend.
There were times it looked like Busch would spoil Hamlin's night Saturday, closing on his bumper a number of times before finishing a second back.
But as we stand today, it is Hamlin with six wins and the points lead. The consistency he has shown has to make him a favorite more than his more flamboyant teammate.
"From day one he has been smooth and hit his marks," JGR president J.D. Gibbs said of Hamlin. "He doesn't show you what the car is going to be able to do at the end of the race. He just stays there.
"I love the way he and Mike have worked together and they have built some momentum. He goes out and pushes as hard as he has to and doesn't go over his head. Really, the past few years watching him, I think that will hopefully pay off in this Chase."
Hamlin and Ford actually began building for the Chase last week at Atlanta, bringing to the track what Hamlin called the fastest car he ever had. He proved that by winning the pole and leading 74 laps before the engine blew.
That didn't deter him. The team came to Richmond with the same purpose, determined to have momentum going into New Hampshire instead of starting it there.
They plan to attack New Hampshire with the same aggression, not taking anything for granted.
The team has the same hunger we saw in Johnson when he finally broke through for his first title in 2006. Hamlin's team just needs to avoid the early pitfalls that have put them in catch-up mode.
"I feel like the last five races of the Chase always seem to be really good for us, and we always gain points in those last five," Hamlin said. "The problem is we race ourselves out of it for the first two or three [races of the Chase], so for me it's about damage control at the beginning.
"If we are within shouting distance with five to go, then I'm pretty confident we'll have a good shot at it."
In other words, we're right where we started in February.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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