RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 10: (Back row L-R) Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge, Kurt Busch, driver of the #22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota, Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's/Power of Pride Chevrolet, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, (front row L-R) Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Budweiser Chevrolet, Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Kellogg's/Cheez-it Ford, Ryan Newman, driver of the #39 U.S. Army-9/11 Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Ollie's Bargain Outlet Ford, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, pose after clinching spots in the "Chase for the Sprint Cup" following the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 10, 2011 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
The only way Denny Hamlin could have timed his recent tear better is if it had taken place in the crucial stages of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Whatever the timing, momentum appears to be on Hamlin's side as the regular season draws to a close.
Hamlin carries a two-race win streak into Richmond International Raceway, one of his best tracks, for Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC), the final event before NASCAR's 10-race postseason Chase. The native of nearby Chesterfield, Va., clinched at least a share of the top seed for the playoffs with his series-best fourth win last weekend at Atlanta.
"You know, you wish you could bottle it up and take these (last two) wins and put them in the Chase," Hamlin said after prevailing in Sunday's AdvoCare 500. "But they are worth something, they're worth six (bonus) points, and we've gained six points in the Chase. That's six spots. That's hard to come by here and there. These guys know more than anything what one point matters when it comes to the Chase."
Hamlin has won two of the last three September events at the .75-mile track, but his confidence might stem from the support system around his Joe Gibbs Racing team.
New crew chief Darian Grubb, who orchestrated Tony Stewart's spirited march to the Sprint Cup title last season, has injected life into the No. 11 Toyota, helping Hamlin win on short tracks (Bristol), one-mile flat tracks (Phoenix) and 1.5-mile intermediate speedways (Kansas, Atlanta). In the pit box, Hamlin's crew has also been stellar, sealing the Atlanta victory with a clutch late-race stop that put their driver in front for the final restart.
"I'm just happy to be at the race track every single week knowing I can win a race," Hamlin said. "It doesn't matter the race track any more, it's just I know we can win. Darian has just taken this program to that next level, and obviously anyone can go on a 10-race run. He did it last year, and hopefully he's got some of the magic saved up for us here in the next few weeks."
Kyle Busch has been similarly magical at Richmond, but oddly enough, the track's mid-spring event -- which he's won four years running -- has been kinder to Hamlin's JGR stablemate. Busch ranks second in driver rating over the last 15 Sprint Cup races at Richmond, behind only Hamlin.
Busch will need to draw on his Richmond expertise as the hunt for wild-card spots reaches its tipping point. With just one race left before the Chase, the top nine drivers in the Sprint Cup standings are locked into the postseason, with the 10th -- Stewart -- assured of at least a wild-card berth.
The jockeying for the two wild-card spots, which go to the drivers in positions 11-20 with the most wins, remains mathematically an eight-horse race. Should Stewart tumble out of the top 10, his three wins on the season would comfortably land him in the Chase through the wild card. Kasey Kahne (two wins, 11th in points) and Busch (one win, 12th in points) hold the provisional wild-card slots heading to the regular-season finale, but a Richmond victory from a host of one-win drivers -- Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano -- would endanger Busch's chances.
"I'm not saying that I'm for sure going to be in (the Chase) because anything can happen," Busch said. "Jeff (Gordon) is no slouch at Richmond either -- he will be fine. I feel like that's the guy we're racing -- the 24 car. We'll just have to see how it all plays out. Jeff could give us a run for our money."