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Denny Hamlin halts Jimmie Johnson's winning streak...but it comes a week too late in the championship hunt

  A brilliant fall afternoon at Martinsville Speedway, and a great day for both winner Denny Hamlin and championship-bound Jimmie Johnson, 1-2 in the Martinsville 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Denny Hamlin, trying to celebrate Sunday's victory over Jimmie Johnson in the Martinsville Tums 500, is still thinking about the 'what ifs' that have in the span of less than one week cost him any chance at this year's NASCAR championship.
   In the California 500 Oct. 11 Hamlin started from the pole and was leading late when, on a restart, he tried to block Juan Pablo Montoya low, and Hamlin wound up spinning through the grass. Johnson wound up winning, and Hamlin lost 130 points.
   Then last Saturday night at Charlotte Hamlin again had a potentially winning car, but his engine broke, he finished 42nd (his worst finish of the season), and he lost 150 points to winner Johnson.
   So in just six days Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford went from title contenders to 'wait till next year.' They're a whopping 352 points down after Race Six of the chase.
   And it hurts, Hamlin concedes.
   It hurts a lot.
   This Southside Richmond kid, just 28, is in only his fourth season on the Sprint Cup tour, but he's made the playoffs all four years. His first season he came close to beating Johnson for the title, finishing third. But in 2007 and 2008 he hit potholes in the playoffs.
   This year, however, Hamlin and Ford have been solid most of the season. In fact, only Johnson has led more laps.
   But one small mistake, that errant block at Fontana, and that engine at Charlotte have made them suddenly also-rans.
   "I know what the stories are going to look like – 'Jimmie Johnson stretches his points lead, yada-yada'….and way on down in the story, 'Denny Hamlin wins,'" Hamlin said with a wry grin.
    "We just had the best car at the end.  Jimmie didn't do anything he shouldn't have…and made sure he protected his points lead. 
     "He gave us a little bit of respect as well."
   "Whenever you have a tough week -- whether it be California or Charlotte -- it affects me until about Tuesday…and then you start gearing up towards the next week. 
     "Then you've got to reassess your goals. And I told Mike at the beginning of this race 'Let's just get back to the top-five in points, because it's a shame for us to be 11th in points, as competitive as we've been…especially with the few guys in front of us who hadn't either won a race or hadn't been competitive for the most part, while we've just been there every single week….even though the stats look terrible.
   "So that's frustrating. 
    "But we reassessed our goals after Charlotte -- to get back in the top-five, and I think that's feasible."


  Denny Hamlin crosses the Martinsville finish line comfortably ahead of Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  At least Hamlin will make the story. Ford teams again struggled – Jamie McMurray was the best finisher, sixth. Teammates and title contenders Carl Edwards (20th) and Greg Biffle (25th) were never factors in Sunday' 3-1/2 hour race, under warm, sunny skies, in front of a crowd of about 55,000 at Martinsville Speedway.
   Johnson knew better than to test Hamlin's mettle in the clutch, considering the championship on the line. "I had one shot to get inside of him, with about 40 to go, but I wasn't quite there to hold the spot so I backed off," Johnson said.
   "We had a good car, but I think Denny had the best car on that last run…and maybe the run before that. Those guys really know what they're doing at this track."
    Gordon was not all that pleased at fifth. His championship hopes appear all but over now, 150 points down. But he's not conceding yet.
    "I was kind of hopeful to have a chance to win this race," Gordon said. "It's too early to really worry about points, and worry about where the other guys are at. We still have four races left -- and Talladega. You can't hide at that race track; you're in harm's way at all times."
    Nevertheless for Gordon, the day, though not that bad on the track, was a downer in the championship picture. Instead of gaining ground on Johnson, he lost.
   And then Gordon got into a couple of run-ins with Juan Pablo Montoya….
   "He's an aggressive driver," Gordon said. "We've seen it from him before.
    "I thought I did something to make him mad, because I didn't understand why he was just driving into me for no reason. But, hey, that is Martinsville.
    "That's kind of the way he drives.    
    "And I just tried not to make him mad anymore and race him as clean as I could."
    Montoya beat Gordon for third.
    "Unfortunately my car wasn't as good on the restarts and he got by me, and we had a great battle for third, and we raced clean at the end…and that's all that really matters," Gordon said. "I hope it's not something that transfers over because I don't know really what I did if I did do something." 
   Montoya said he finally just got tired of Gordon trying to push him around. "He kept pushing me up in the corners, higher and higher, and I finally pushed back," Montoya said.
    Patience is usually a virtue at this tight track. But then patience is not something Montoya is known for.
   "You race…and if somebody races hard, you're going to race hard," Montoya said. "But here is a place you don't want to wreck anybody, because payback is really bad here. But people have got to respect you."
    Martin too lost ground to Johnson. And he seemed a little frustrated.
   "We need to pick it up," Martin said. "You know -- eighths, sevenths, that won't get it right now.
    "We spun the tires all day and weren't able to fix it. But we fought hard and gave it everything we had…and that's all we could muster.
    "However eighths and sevenths -- that doesn't look like that's going to be enough to win this championship.
    "But there's still some racing left, and a lot of things can change at Talladega. We're going to go there and race like there ain't no way we can wreck."
    Among the chasers Tony Stewart is probably the best pick at Talladega. However Sunday's ninth here leaves him 192 points down to Johnson, and that's going to be all but impossible to pick up.
   Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief, was dejected: "It was definitely a survival day for us.
   "About the middle of the race we had the car really good….but we had a bad pit stop and fell back. We had to make up for that -- do a little strategy thing. And that ended up putting us back up in the field.
    "We were able to run up into the top-five from there. But late cautions didn't play out in the end. We struggled to hang on to a top-10."
   To have any shot at the title now, Stewart and Grubb and the rest of the challengers have to bank on Johnson having a rough day at Talladega.
   If Johnson can get out of Talladega unscathed, the fat lady will be singing loud and clear.
   "That is what everybody in the whole series is thinking right now," Grubb concedes. "He has got that dominant performance going, and he is out there pulling away from everybody.
    "You have a good strong run and you still lose points. That is a hard day to swallow."

  Denny Hamlin passed Jimmie Johnson for the lead for good on lap 363 and held Johnson at bay the rest of the way for his third win of the season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Mike: Your video this morning


Your video this morning was the best! You should film your drive in every week. That really came off cool.

Keep up the fight..


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