Chase Now Down To Three
MARTINSVILLE, Va. — With four races remaining in the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, the top three in the points could fit under a blanket.
Scratch that. They could fit under a beach towel.
Denny Hamlin’s triumph at Martinsville Speedway, his third straight at the Virginia oval and seventh victory of the season, cut 35 points off leader Jimmie Johnson’s advantage…and took a major arrow out of Johnson’s quiver at the same time.
“Who said it was over?” Hamlin charged as he sat down for the winner’s interview. “Told you it wasn’t over.”
He was kidding, in a way.
Coming in, Johnson (five) and Hamlin (three) had won the last eight races here, and whoever got the better finish was going to steal some momentum from the other.
Turns out it was Hamlin, who earned the 15th victory of his career and took a major step toward ending Johnson’s run at four straight titles.
Hamlin had said earlier in the week that the pressure was on Johnson to defend, and he made it stick.
“Just our reputation here, obviously figured one of the two of us has got to win here,” he said. “I thought for the most part of the race, neither one of us was going to finish in the top five.
“Had we lost points to him here, probably would have been a big blow as far as my confidence going forward, because obviously this is probably my best race track. It’s his best racetrack. I feel like I have been better than him in the last couple years.
“It’s good to come away gaining points and getting as close as what we are right now because obviously the alternative is we’re probably 50, 60 behind if the race ends the way we ran pretty much all day. That’s going to be tough to make up unless something big happens at Talladega.”
Johnson said he was aware of Hamlin’s ability here, and that he did a good job backing up the talk.
“I really felt like he had a chance to win the race here,” Johnson said of Hamlin. “You can’t argue with the stats. He [Hamlin] did a good job of stepping up to all the talk. For a long time, I thought the 29, the 11 and us were going to finish in sequential order. We were around each other all day long.
“That last stop at the end, those guys found a little something and got going. There’s a lot of racing left. We’ll see.”
While Hamlin said the pressure was on Johnson, it was also on him. Martinsville is the one track, along with Richmond, where he’s a favorite every time out.
“It was a ‘must-finish-in-front-of race,’” Hamlin said. “I couldn’t lose points to him, not at this race track. We ran too well here the last few years to lost points to him at this track.”