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Hamlin’s win catches top spot in Chase

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press / September 12, 2010

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RICHMOND — Denny Hamlin went from last to first to the top seed in NASCAR’s race for the Sprint Cup championship.

Hamlin snapped a monthlong slump last night with another win at Richmond International Raceway, his home track, by holding off Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch in a dominating victory. And it came a week after his last-place finish at Atlanta, where he had a dominant car before his engine failed.

It was Hamlin’s series-best sixth win of the season and pushed him past four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson for the top seed in the Chase. The points were reset after last night’s race, the Air Guard 400, and Hamlin goes to the Chase opener next week at Loudon, N.H., with a 10-point lead over Johnson.

Johnson knows Hamlin is lurking. “Maybe I took for granted how well Denny ran last year, that he would just be there [in contention],’’ Johnson said.

It’s the first time in Hamlin’s career he has been the points leader.

“At this point now, the confidence level is pretty high,’’ Hamlin said. “We could have had two wins in a row going into the Chase, but last week is in the past and right now I just feel really confident in the team.’’

Regular-season points leader Kevin Harvick took the third seed, 30 points behind Hamlin. Busch, also 30 behind Hamlin, gave Toyota and JGR a 1-2 finish.

Kurt Busch, winner of the inaugural 2004 Chase, is the fifth seed, followed by Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle, who secured his spot in the 12-driver field just 30 laps into the race when start-and-park driver Jason Leffler called it a night. Biffle was guaranteed a spot in the Chase by finishing 42d or better.

He wound up 32d.

“We knew we were going to qualify for the Chase, but we felt we would run a little better than that. That was pretty poor,’’ Biffle said. “Our cars keep breaking and we seem to have stuff wrong with them.’’

Jeff Gordon will be seeded eighth, the first of five drivers winless this season who will start the Chase 60 points behind Hamlin.

Clint Bowyer was the only real driver on the “bubble’’ at the start of the race, but had a stout car, led 33 laps and finished sixth to grab the final Chase spot.

“As happy as I am to make the Chase, I was frustrated with the finish,’’ Bowyer said. “We were a second-place car and made an attempt to pass Denny a couple of times and slipped clear to sixth.’’

But Bowyer never had to worry in a race that lacked the drama of previous years.

Bowyer took a 117-point lead into the race and needed only to avoid catastrophe to earn the last spot in the field.

“All they had to do is fire the thing up tonight and not have a meltdown,’’ Harvick said of Bowyer’s effort at Richmond.