Hamlin's win means Chase fun lingers

10/27/2010 - NASCAR

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- It's not often an athlete backs up what he says.

Denny Hamlin did on Sunday.

Because of it we may have a Chase to remember.

In case you forgot, Hamlin said the pressure was on Jimmie Johnson before the race at Martinsville Speedway because of Hamlin's recent record at the paperclip-shaped track. He then made sure it was, winning for the third straight time here to trim his 41-point deficit to the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion to six points.

Even better, Kevin Harvick finished third to move within 62 points of Johnson, who finished fifth, to create the tightest Chase in history after six races.

Game on!

You could hear it in Hamlin's voice as he took the checkered flag for the seventh time this season.

"We're back, baby!" he shouted.

Hamlin proceeded to tell crew chief Mike Ford he loved him for doing a "great job of adjusting the car" for the final run. He told the pit crew -- the one he's maligned often over the past few years -- "you did it right" getting him out fast enough to move from sixth to third on his final stop.

You could hear it again in Hamlin's postrace news conference as he looked over the media corps after a hard study of the points standings on a television monitor and said, "Who said it was over? I told you it wasn't!"

Yes, he did.

Everything Hamlin predicted earlier in the week had come true. That's impressive, because had those predictions not come true, the pressure would have been on him.

"Definitely, if we had lost points to [Johnson] it would have been a big blow to my confidence," Hamlin said. "Obviously, this is my best racetrack and his best racetrack. … Yeah, it's good to come away gaining points and coming away as close as we are now."

Perhaps Hamlin is right; the pressure is on Johnson with four races remaining. Perhaps Hamlin has stumbled onto the right formula to end Johnson's reign, patiently and cautiously going through the first five races of the Chase trying to avoid mistakes and then turning up the heat where he knows he can.

Not that Johnson looked shaken. As far as he's concerned, the Chase doesn't really start until after next weekend's race at Talladega, where anything can happen.

"The three races after that, if we're close, we'll race like hell," said Johnson, who had won five of six Martinsville races before Hamlin's streak.

It's hard to imagine any more hellacious racing than what we saw on this half-mile Mecca in the Virginia foothills. The radio communications of Harvick and Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton under caution told you all you needed to know about how intense things were.

Upset that Burton brake-checked him on a restart, Harvick shouted: "He's out of mulligans. That's the third time now. He did it at Indy, he did it at Loudon, he did it here."

Said Burton, whose left-rear bumper was damaged from a Harvick bump: "I will not tolerate it. I have done nothing wrong. I am a good teammate and I'm not going to take him running into me."

Johnson and Kyle Busch had an adventurous few laps battling for fourth as Hamlin overtook Harvick for the lead with 29 laps remaining. It got so rough that Johnson showed Busch his middle finger to let him know he didn't appreciate being bumped going into the corner.

"I really was just letting him know I was pissed," Johnson said.

It was that way all day long. Kurt Busch spun out Jeff Gordon after Gordon roughed him up making a pass with 114 laps remaining. Even Hamlin's temper was on a short fuse after Burton brake-checked him on an earlier restart.

If that didn't entertain race fans enough, Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 90 laps -- more than he has all season -- and seemed a threat to win until the sun settled behind the trees to change his handling.

"I love short-track racing," Earnhardt said after a seventh-place finish. "I like the style of racing. You've got to get over a lot of things that happen and you've got to stand your ground in a lot of cases. It's a lot of fun."

But nobody had more fun than Hamlin, who knew this is where he had to make his stand if he was going to contend for his first title. He didn't have the dominant car he's had here in past years. After leading the first lap from the pole, he didn't lead again until he got past Harvick near the end.

"I don't think I've ever closed that well -- ever," Hamlin said. "We did not have a race-winning car all day until the very end."

In the end there was no denying Hamlin. He took advantage of his final pit stop and methodically worked his way around Harvick without angering him. The only car that may have been better at the end was the mangled one of second-place Mark Martin, who turned an early wreck into his best run of the year.

"In another 20 laps it would have been a really great race," Martin said.

It already was. It had everything NASCAR could hope for to build interest in a sport that has seen television ratings and attendance dwindling.

And thanks to Hamlin, it created drama like the Chase hasn't seen since the first one in 2004 when Johnson lost to Kurt Busch by eight points.

"It was a must-finish-in-front-of-[Johnson]-race," Hamlin said. "I just could not … I couldn't lose points to him. Not at this racetrack."

That Hamlin was so bold earlier in the week shouldn't be a surprise. He's been arguably NASCAR's most outspoken driver all season long, being fined earlier this year for calling out the governing body on Twitter for so-called mystery debris cautions.

He at times says things that make Ford shake his head in disbelief.

"I still haven't figured out everything that comes out of my mouth," Hamlin said.

Fortunately for Ford, he wasn't aware Hamlin was so brash earlier in the week. More fortunate, Ford understands his driver and what he's capable of now that he wasn't capable of in years past.

"I understand his confidence coming here," Ford said. "But still, you have to do the job at the end of the day."

Hamlin did. He backed up everything he said.

Now if he gets past Talladega without a major setback he'll enter the final three races at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami knowing he's won there in his most recent races.

"I'm pretty confident once we get past Talladega that we can race those guys heads-up," Hamlin said of Johnson's team.

No reason to doubt him now.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.