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Denny Hamlin rules Martinsville again, trims deficit to Jimmie Johnson to six points

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Denny Hamlin figured if he was going to make a run at Jimmie Johnson's points lead, there was no better place to start than Martinsville Speedway.

Hamlin passed Kevin Harvick for the Tums 500 lead with 29 laps to go Sunday and earned his third consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup win at the smallest track in the series.

With his series-leading seventh victory this season, Hamlin became the first driver since Johnson in 2007 to sweep both races here, and he and Harvick closed the gap on Johnson in the points race with four events to go. Hamlin cut his 41-point deficit to six, the smallest with four races left since the Chase for the Champion­ship began in 2004.

"Who said this was over?" Hamlin asked. "I told you it wasn't over."

He entered the race not viewing it as a must-win but rather a "must-finish-in-front-of," he said.

Determined to outqualify Johnson and get the sometimes-critical first pit stall, Hamlin won the pole for just the second time this season. Johnson qualified 19th, and Harvick 36th.

But once the race began, Hamlin went backward. By the first caution and restart about 50 laps in, he was behind both of them. Johnson was eighth, Harvick ninth and Hamlin 12th.

"I don't think I've ever closed that well, ever," Hamlin said after his 15th career victory and fourth at Martinsville.

"Everyone saw how far back we were dropping, and I thought it was the end of our day," he said. "We kept fighting, kept digging, kept making up spots."

Harvick finished third after Mark Martin passed him late, but Harvick had his best showing in 19 starts at the 0.526-mile oval; he never had been better than seventh.

"We kept the (No.) 48 (Johnson) behind us and the 11 (Hamlin) in sight in what everybody said was a two-horse race, and we were right there in the middle of it," said Harvick, who gained 15 points in the standings and now trails Johnson by just 62.

Johnson, the four-time defending series champion, rallied to finish fifth. "For a while I thought the 29 (Harvick), the 11 and us were just going to ride together all day long," he said, "but then the 11 got going there at the end."

Harvick led during most of a long green-flag run until Hamlin got to his rear bumper, then went to his inside. They raced side-by-side for five laps before Harvick checked up coming out of Turn 2, falling in line behind Hamlin on Lap 472.

Jeff Gordon had said earlier in the week he figured his chances for a fifth series title were pretty much gone. On Sunday, Kurt Busch made sure there was no doubt, bumping Gordon and sending him into a wall.

"He shoved me in there, and I shoved him back in Turn 4," Busch said before detailing a history of discontent with Gordon at Martinsville. "His chicken move afterward wasn't called for, but that shows the game we're going to play. One bump vs. another bump, it still seems like the scorecard isn't even."

Gordon had been running near the front but finished 20th.

Harvick and Jeff Burton of Richard Childress Racing had a spat racing near the lead during a restart with about 150 laps to go. Burton slid in line in front of Harvick, and Harvick nudged him to show his displeasure.

"He is out of mulligans. He's done it to me three times now," Harvick said on his radio.

Burton was adamant he did nothing wrong and offered some advice to his teammate: "Every time it's a conflict, he is involved. And you would think over the amount of years that he has done it, that he would get the hint that he is always in the middle of it and maybe sometimes if he just backed up a little bit and caught his breath, he would be okay."

Sprint Cup points

With four races to go, only these drivers are eligible in the Chase for the Championship:

Driver Pts. Back

Jimmie Johnson 5,998—

Denny Hamlin 5,992 6

Kevin Harvick 5,936 62

Kyle Busch 5,826 172

Jeff Gordon 5,795 203

Carl Edwards 5,785 213

Tony Stewart 5,762 236

Jeff Burton 5,752 246

Kurt Busch 5,721 277

Matt Kenseth 5,705 293

Greg Biffle 5,682 316

Clint Bowyer 5,592 406

Note: Points unofficial; NASCAR posts official standings today

Up next

Amp Energy Juice 500, 1 p.m. Sunday, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. TV: ESPN

Gearhead stats

Winner's average speed: 71.619 mph

Time of race: 3 hours, 40 minutes, 20 seconds

Margin of victory: 2.318 seconds

Caution flags: 15 for 90 laps

Lead changes: 24 among 12 drivers

Lap leaders: Hamlin 1-10; Ambrose 11-50; Mears 51; Newman 52-82; Burton 83-111; Reutimann 112; Burton 113-126; Newman 127; Burton 128-171; Harvick 172; Burton 173-214; Harvick 215-222; Burton 223-227; Harvick 228; J.Gordon 229-284; Earnhardt 285-289; Stewart 290; R.Gordon 291; Earnhardt 292-350; Harvick 351; Earnhardt 352-377; Harvick 378-386; Schrader 387-393; Harvick 394-470; Hamlin 471-500

Denny Hamlin rules Martinsville again, trims deficit to Jimmie Johnson to six points 10/24/10 [Last modified: Sunday, October 24, 2010 9:35pm]
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