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Vickers edges Busch in Chase

Hamlin wins Chevy 400

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / September 13, 2009

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RICHMOND - Twice before, Denny Hamlin had dominated a race at Richmond International Raceway, putting himself on the cusp of finally winning down the road from his Chesterfield home. Both times, a late-race incident spoiled his efforts and ended his chances at the victory he’s wanted most.

Not this time. Hamlin passed Jeff Gordon and took the lead for the final time on Lap 287, coasting for the next 100 laps, then holding off Kurt Busch after a late caution and winning the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 last night, the final race before NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. The first of 10 playoff races is next Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.

Hamlin was one of four drivers who arrived in Richmond knowing their spots in the Chase were secure. But winning in his backyard might be just the springboard he needs to seriously challenge for his first NASCAR points championship.

“These are the times I get so excited,’’ said Hamlin. “It’s going to be a big boost for us. They better watch us. This team is dangerous.’’

Hamlin, driving the No. 11 FedEx Toyota, led the most laps in earning his sixth career win, second this season.

The night’s biggest loser was Matt Kenseth, who began the night squarely on the bubble for the 12th and final Chase spot, leading Brian Vickers by 20 points. Kenseth qualified poorly yesterday, earning the 28th spot, and never factored last night. By finishing 25th, it guaranteed that Kenseth will miss the Chase for the first time since the NASCAR playoffs were created in 2004.

Kenseth complicated matters when he left the track, twice getting slightly boxed in by Michael Waltrip while pitting, then completely missing his pit stall when he came in during the fourth caution, which came on Lap 108. His pit crew crouched behind the wall ready to spring into action, but Kenseth drove right past them, then had to throw the car in reverse to get back to his stall. Not in a position to give up valuable time, it proved to be symbolic of Kenseth’s night. He fell a lap down on Lap 268.

That set the stage for a duel between Vickers and Kyle Busch, battling for the final spot in the Chase after coming here ranked 13th and 14th in the points standings. Busch, who won the May race at Richmond and has six other top-five finishes here, seemed to have the upper hand on Vickers, whose record at this track had been spotty at best.

Vickers, though, came through when it mattered, staying within sight of Busch over the final few laps, when any pass meant a change of 4 points. Busch beat him to the finish line and finished fifth, but Vickers was only two places behind, which allowed Vickers to grab the last spot in the Chase. Busch ended 8 points back in 13th, the closest differential between the last car in and first car out in NASCAR history.

“We picked the right night to figure this place out,’’ said Vickers. “Now we’re in the Chase.’’

Said Busch: “We did all we could do, it was a valiant effort. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for us to get in the Chase. We’re on the outside looking in.’’

Mark Martin, who began the race 10th in points and starting from the pole, led for only three laps before Hamlin passed him. Three laps later, the first of 10 cautions came out when Scott Speed and Jeff Burton made contact.

Points leader Tony Stewart got loose and spun out Reed Sorenson on Lap 46, bringing out another caution, which temporarily dropped both drivers a lap behind. Stewart methodically worked his way back toward the leaders, getting as close as 10th. He ultimately finished 17th, and will enter the Chase as the second seed behind Martin, whose four victories this season generated enough bonus points to nudge him past Stewart after the points were reset.

At the halfway point, Hamlin led Gordon, with Martin third, Jimmie Johnson fourth, and Kurt Busch fifth. With 100 laps to go, Hamlin still led Gordon and Kurt Busch, with Clint Bowyer fourth and Martin fifth.

Dale Earnhardt continued his dismal year, falling a lap behind and finishing 21st. Earnhardt, who qualified 15th, will miss the Chase.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com.