Denny Hamlin established himself as the top seed in NASCAR’s Chase for Cup by scoring his sixth win of the year in last Saturday night’s race at the 0.75-mile Richmond oval. Hamlin dominated the 400-mile race’s final stages in his Joe Gibbs Toyota, narrowly defeating team-mate Kyle Busch and defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson. Joey Logano showed the strength of Gibbs’s Toyotas by taking fourth place in Virginia.
Richmond was the 26th and last race of NASCAR’s regular season before the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, which kicks off this weekend on the one-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Twelve drivers qualify each year for the championship play-off and they are seeded based on victories, so Hamlin goes to New Hampshire as the championship leader with 5060 points. Hamlin, 29, has been racing in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup series since ’05 driving for famed NFL coach Joe Gibbs’s team. He finished third in the ’06 championship and came fifth last year. This season has been his most successful to date.
Defending champion Johnson is seeded second in the Chase for the Cup with 5050 points, courtesy of five wins. He has won the last four Sprint Cup championships with Rick Hendrick’s four-car Chevrolet team and is going after a record fifth straight title. Johnson was very competitive at Richmond, leading a good deal of the race, and is the favourite going into the championship play-off.
Kevin Harvick led the championship for most of the year and has won three races but could finish no better than ninth at Richmond. Harvick is seeded third in the Chase for the Cup with 5030 points. He drives for Richard Childress’s three-car Chevrolet team and has been racing in NASCAR’s premier series for 10 years. His best season came in 2006 and ‘08 when he finished fourth in the championship, and he won NASCAR’s second division Nationwide championship in 2001 and ‘06.
Seeded fourth, also with 5030 points, is Kyle Busch who’s won three races so far this year. Busch, 25, is known as ‘Rowdy’ and has been touted as a future champion since his arrival in the Cup series in 2004. But he’s yet to find the consistency to challenge for the championship. His best year thus far came in ’07 when he finished fifth in the points in his last season with Rick Hendrick’s Chevrolet team before moving to Gibbs’s Toyota operation.
Kyle’s older brother Kurt has won two races this year driving one of Roger Penske’s trio of Dodges, so he’s seeded fifth. Kurt won the championship in 2004 with Jack Roush’s Ford team. Completing the list of this year’s 12 championship chasers are 2002 and ‘05 champion Tony Stewart (Stewart-Haas Chevrolet), Roush Ford driver Greg Biffle, four-time champion (1996, ‘97, ‘98 and ‘01) Jeff Gordon in one of Hendrick’s Chevrolets, Carl Edwards (Roush Ford), Jeff Burton (Childress Chevrolet), 2003 champion Matt Kenseth (Roush Ford) and Clint Bowyer (Childress Chevrolet).