LEMASTERS: Martinsville Turns Chase Race Into Three-Team Fight

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Denny Hamlin (11) and Jimmie Johnson. (HHP/Harold Hinson Photo)

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — This Denny Hamlin cat is starting to make the 2010 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup more like 2004 and less like 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

In other words, he’s being patient, he’s being smart and he’s being a pain in Jimmie Johnson’s royal behind.

Most of the time, Johnson’s competitors have the good manners to make it look good until Martinsville, then fade away into the noise and leave the stage to Sir James the Fourth.

And there’s the added impact of Kevin Harvick, who refuses to let Hamlin have all the fun and is hanging around just in case one of the other two falters any little bit.

By winning at Martinsville on Sunday, Hamlin erased most of the 41 points that Johnson had on him after five races. He sits six back, with Harvick another 56 behind him in third.

Everybody, including Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford, knows that Johnson’s the leader. They also know there’s not a lot of quit in the No. 29 Shell Pennzoil Chevrolet team either.

“They don’t give up,” Hamlin said of Harvick’s team. “He had probably one of the best cars, except for maybe the 31 [Jeff Burton]. They kept flip-flopping back and forth all day with who had the best car between those two.”

Hamlin, meanwhile, started from the pole and went exactly nowhere the first 10 laps or so. In fact, he went backward at an alarming rate.

That worried him, and Ford, because the game plan was to finish as far in front of the 48 [Johnson] as possible. Harvick was 36th at the start, so he knew that it would be a while before he saw him.

“I knew yesterday after final practice the 29 [Harvick] had the best car on average, I believe,” Hamlin said. “So, you know, this is one of the race tracks that, yeah, qualifying is very important if you can get the number one pit stall, but you can come from the back to the front at this race track. He [Johnson, who started 19th] passed me 20 laps into the race. I just chased those guys all day long until the end when we just got those adjustments just a little bit better than what those guys did.”

As the race wore on, Hamlin got back toward the front…right with the 29 and the 48.

“They were right in front of me pretty much all day long,” Hamlin said. “I knew exactly where they were. I just knew we had the potential to make our car much better than what it was when we were racing around those guys. I was pretty confident all day no matter what happens with those guys, if we did the right things during the course of the day, we would have a chance to win. And we did.

“The thing is, everyone stepped up big with 100 to go. Everyone executed perfectly that last 100 laps.”

That’s going to be the key over the next month: execution. Whichever one of the three drivers and teams in this title hunt executes the best over the final four races, whichever one does what it has to do, will wind up hoisting the Sprint Cup trophy in Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 21.

Whether that’s the battle-tested 48 team, the pre-season favorite No. 11 team or the regular-season champion 29 team, well, that remains to be seen. We’ll know in about four weeks.

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