Denny Hamlin pulled to within six points of defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson on Sunday. Hamlin qualified his Joe Gibbs Toyota on pole at the half-mile Martinsville bullring in Virginia and after some early troubles he came through to score his third consecutive win at Martinsville, his home track. This was Hamlin’s seventh win of the year, more than anyone else this season, and for the first time in his career he has a chance to win NASCAR’s Sprint Cup championship.
Martinsville was considered to be Hamlin’s big chance to close the gap to Johnson and he did exactly that. But it didn’t come easily because after leading the opening laps Hamlin fell back, struggling with his tyres. Over the course of the race however Hamlin’s crew sorted out their car so that he was the class of the field at the end, catching and passing leader Kevin Harvick and pulling away to win convincingly.
“I don’t think I’ve ever closed that well,” Hamlin said. “We just kept working. We did not have a race-winning car all day until the very end. We went completely backwards and I was sweating it, but Mike Ford and the crew kept adjusting and adjusting and we continued to fight and persevere. By the end of the day we got our car where it needed to be and the pit crew got me from sixth to third on the last pit stop and that was the key. I was just sitting there trying to be patient with the rear tyres and saving it for the end. For me, this was one of my more gratifying victories simply because we fought for it so much.
“It’s great racing here at Martinsville and I’ve had so much support from the fans all weekend,” Hamlin added. “I’ve raced so many laps around this racetrack. Years before I got to the Cup series I was racing late models around here. I learned so much from the local short track racers all over Virginia and North Carolina.”
Veteran Mark Martin, 51, enjoyed his best race of the year finishing second despite damaging his car in an incident with AJ Allmendinger early in the race. Harvick hung on to finish third and keep his championship hopes alive. With four races to go Harvick trails championship leader Johnson by 62 points.
Johnson qualified a poor 19th at Martinsville but despite running much better in the race he was unable to lead any laps. Johnson is chasing a record fifth consecutive NASCAR title but is now under serious pressure from Hamlin. NASCAR races next weekend at the Talladega superspeedway in Alabama, renowned as a ‘wild card’ track because it often features multi-car accidents and surprise winners. Talladega is followed on consecutive weekends by Texas, Phoenix and the season-closer at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 21.
Hamlin, 29, has been racing Sprint Cup cars for five years and believes he can beat Johnson to this year’s championship. “I feel like we’re in a great spot,” Hamlin said. “I knew we could come to Martinsville and win the race and close the gap. We’ve got a wild card next week at Talladega because it’s so hard to predict whether you’re going to be in a wreck or not. No one knows what can happen there, but I love being in this position. I like being the chaser instead of the guy who’s in front.”