NASCAR Chase For The Sprint Cup: Martinsville Tightens The Competition
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Denny Hamlin was almost gleeful, following his win at Martinsville, as he reminded the media that he had told them it wasn't over yet. He had gone into the race on Sunday brimming with confidence.
Early in the race it was looking like he might have been a bit over-confident as he slid backwards through the field before reversing direction and moving back to the front in the waning laps of the race. Most importantly, he delivered on his promises to be in the thick of the Chase through the final three or four races.
The win helped Hamlin move within six points of leader Jimmie Johnson, who finished fifth. Hamlin's teammate, Kyle Busch, contributed to the tightening of the points by a late-race pass of Johnson, adding five points to the total gained on the reigning champion. Busch's fourth-place finish at Martinsville also moved him to fourth in the standings, although he is a long shot for the championship sitting at 172 points behind the leader.
Besides Hamlin, perhaps the only driver with a real shot at dethroning Johnson is Kevin Harvick, who is third in points, 62 points out of first. Heading into Talladega this weekend, Harvick has to be considered among the favorites, usually running well on the restrictor plate tracks. Harvick also had a strong run on Sunday, finishing in third.
If there is a concern with Harvick, it would be from the conflict between he and teammate Jeff Burton. Radio exchanges between spotters and drivers illustrated a feeling by both drivers that the other was not being "a good teammate." The one thing the RCR teams don't need right now is internal conflict getting in the way of this season's successes and any potential continuation of that success.
After an on-track confrontation with fellow Chaser, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon saw any hope he had of getting in the mix of things pretty much vanish when he spun and hit the wall. Gordon had gotten into Busch's bumper earlier, which caused Busch to get loose and give up the spot to Gordon. Less than a lap later, Busch sent a message that he wasn't taking that and very deliberately spun Gordon.
Talking about the incident after the race, Busch invoked rough treatment by Gordon of not only himself several times over the course of his career, but also Rusty Wallace, when Wallace drove the No. 2. The whole situation probably had a lot more to do with the June race at Sonoma, where Gordon moved through the field like a rolling battering ram. He predicted at the time that his actions may come back to haunt him, and as it turns out, he was correct.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup has distilled down to a three-man contest following Martinsville, with Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick all having a real shot at winning the championship. Several other drivers are still mathematically in the running, but it would take a total failure of these three teams to give any of the others a real shot.
This is the closest competition in the history of this championship format, and Talladega will potentially play a huge role in who walks away with the trophy. Talladega is always a lottery, and it depends on whose number comes up when "The Big One" happens, and who is able to stay of of trouble and get a decent finish.
What is clear is that over the final four races of the season, Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick cannot afford to be conservative in how they approach each race. If any of them takes a conservative approach, they will probably be able to wave as one of the other two flashes past to win the championship.
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