RICHMOND, Va. — Denny Hamlin went from last to first to the top seed in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship.
Hamlin snapped a monthlong slump Saturday 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 dominated before his engine failed.
It was Hamlin's series-best and career-high sixth win this season and pushed him past four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson for the top seed in the Chase. The points have been reset with each of the top 12 drivers getting 5,000 points plus 10 for each win thus far. Hamlin, at 5,060, goes to the Chase opener next week at New Hampshire with a 10-point lead over Johnson.
Hamlin, who led 251 of 400 laps Saturday at the 0.75-mile short track, conserved his tires after a green-flag pit stop on Lap 327 and pulled away from Busch slightly in the closing laps.
"He made a heck of a charge," Hamlin said. "Luckily for me, it was a teammate, because anyone else probably would have moved us (out of the way)."
It's the first time Hamlin has been the points leader.
"It's been an up-and-down year, but there's been a lot of ups, and obviously we're going to enter this Chase No. 1," said Hamlin, who was born in Brandon but raised in Virginia. "… A lot of people bashed this race team about 'Can't finish this, and can't finish that.' But we've got the most wins, and hopefully that's going to carry us for the 10 weeks in the Chase.
"At this point, I think we can win at all of 'em."
Regular-season points leader Kevin Harvick took the third seed, 30 points behind Hamlin. Busch, also at 5,030, 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 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 42nd or better.
He wound up 32nd.
"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."
Five drivers in the Chase are winless this season and start the Chase 60 points behind Hamlin, including Clint Bowyer, the final driver to clinch a spot.
Bowyer was the only real driver on the "bubble" at the start but had a stout car, led 33 laps and finished sixth.
"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. He came in with a 117-point lead over 13th-place Ryan Newman.
"All they had to do is fire the thing up tonight and not have a meltdown," Harvick said of Bowyer's effort.
So the attention was instead on the 10 drivers who had already clinched spots and what measures they'd take to grab the last 10 bonus points for the Chase.
In the end, though, nobody had anything for Hamlin, who won at Richmond for the second consecutive year.
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. "That's been the reality to me, that he's going to be one of the guys to race for it."