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Denny Hamlin! Last at Atlanta, first Saturday in Richmond...and now atop the NASCAR championship standings for the playoffs

  The man who can dethrone Mr. Four-time, Jimmie Johnson? Denny Hamlin, in winning Richmond, shows he's ready to try (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   Denny Hamlin, who finished dead last a week ago at Atlanta, with a blown engine, had more than enough power here all the way Saturday night to beat teammate Kyle Busch and win the Richmond 400.
   And that puts the 29-year-old Hamlin, from nearby Chesterfield, atop the Sprint Cup tour standings for the first race of the championship playoffs, which begin next weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
   Kevin Harvick, who has led the Cup standings most of the season, by a wide margin, will lose that edge for the 10-race chase, with all the 12 men in the playoffs having their points essentially 're-zeroed' for the stretch run. Harvick held a whopping 438-point lead over Hamlin at the beginning of the 400, and Harvick held a 219-point lead over his closest challenger, Jeff Gordon. But the first 26 races of the 36-race season are only a cutoff for the playoffs, and Harvick gets nothing for his work up till now....and he's just another guy in the chase.
    "Atop the points for the first time in my career, it feels good," Hamlin said. "We've got the most wins this season (six)...and we feel we can win all the races in the chase."

  Carl Edwards (red car) started on the pole and was strong early (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Hamlin was the pre-season favorite to win the title, based on his strong stretch run in 2009. However he started very slowly, before finally catching fire with a string of five wins in 10 starts back in the spring.
   Lately, though, Hamlin has struggled to finish.
   This night, however, he made it look pretty easy.
   Carl Edwards started from the pole and led 95 of the first 100 laps of the 400-lapper. But he faded to 10th.
   Clint Bowyer challenged Hamlin for a while, and so did Jimmie Johnson.
   But down the stretch it was Hamlin versus Busch.
   "It was just a game of patience, and kept the rear tires on it," Hamlin said. "Our team has performed like this the last month or so, we just don't have the finishes to show for it. "
   And the team to beat in this title race?
  "No, I don't feel like we're the team to beat," team owner Joe Gibbs insisted.
    And he's probably right, considering the ups and downs this season.
    However Gibbs has to be proud of this night – not only did his men finish 1-2, newcomer Joey Logano finished fourth.
   An impressive showing.
   But the pressure is really on now.
   Not just on these championship chase drivers, but also on NASCAR's promoters.
   As if this sport needed a boot in the rear, the National Football League provided it with Thursday night's sizzling season-opener. The Vikings-Saints game drew the biggest regular season prime-time TV ratings since 1998 -- a 16.5 rating, which translates to about 27.5 million viewers.
   That's up more than 30 percent over last year's NFL season opener, also on NBC.
   For some other perspective: Remember the NASCAR championship chase playoff format was created in part to try to give NBC, then with NASCAR, ammunition against the NFL.
   Consider: last weekend's Sunday night Atlanta 500 drew only a 3.9 TV rating, about 5.5 million viewers.
   Little wonder NASCAR promoters here pulled out all the stops for Saturday night's pre-race show Richmond International Raceway, putting on a stirring patriotic display.
   And NASCAR will haul its 12 Sprint Cup title contenders to New York City this week, on a media blitz to launch the 10-race championship chase, which opens next weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
   But on the down side of the NASCAR marketing game, it's now official that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be on the NASCAR playoff sidelines again. The son of the racing legend has failed to make the cut for three of the last four championship playoffs.
   So, while results of NASCAR's massive engine dyno testing (of 16 team engines pulled from cars immediately after th4e August 15th race at Michigan) were a hot topic in the Sprint Cup garage, the more critical numbers could be ABC's TV ratings from this the last race of NASCAR's regular season.
   (ABC carried the Saturday 400 here, not ESPN, which will carry most of the playoff events.)
   While Busch and Hamlin have both complained over the summer about worries of losing the edge they both showed over rivals earlier in the season, and  both seemed to point at horsepower, the most recent tests by NASCAR on engines appears to show the Toyota guys have enough power under the hood to contend.
   And the way Hamlin, Busch and Logano ran at this three-quarter-mile oval Saturday night, they couldn't have much to complain about.
   NASCAR over the past few weeks has tested engines used in the Michigan 400 by Chevy's Jimmie Johnson, Chevy's Tony Stewart, Chevy's Kevin Harvick, Chevy's Juan Pablo Montoya, Toyota's Denny Hamlin, Toyota's Reed Sorenson, Toyota's Martin Truex Jr., Toyota's Marcos Ambrose, Toyota's Scott Riggs, Toyota's Joe Nemechek, Dodge's Sam Hornish, Dodge's Brad Keselowski, Dodge's JJ Yeley, Ford's Carl Edwards, Ford's Kasey Kahne, and Ford's Patrick Carpentier.
   Preliminary reports are that Chevrolet has the strongest engines, both in peak horsepower (Jimmie Johnson at nearly 850), and average horsepower over the full-lap power-band (Kevin Harvick). Toyota engines are right there with Chevrolet's. But Ford and Dodge both appear a bit off, on both measures.
                The results of Saturday night's Richmond 400, the regular season finale


  A great night for racing at Richmond, despite a few sprinkles, and a good crowd of maybe some 85,000 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



Richmond was hardly a great

Richmond was hardly a great night for racing despite the pre-race hype from the broadcast team that it was going to be one of the best of the year with all the drivers going for broke for the win. Processional and sleep inducing, the highlight was Miss Sprint Cup in the victory circle. There is something fundamentally wrong with the races this year and NASCAR should be looking at why the sport is so boring as TV ratings and live attendance drop. And what's the deal with Dale, Jr?? His performance was so bad that he must be sending a message to Rick Hendrick to bring in Tony, Sr, as his crew chief next season. Dale is one of NASCAR's two stars(the other being Kyle Busch)and NASCAR will not get untracked until his situation is resolved. I say NASCAR has to intervene because Hendrick obviously has no idea how to fix things with Jr and has made a mess of the Earnhardt ride as well as damaged the chemistry of the Martin team through his ineffective meddling.

agreed. but the racing should

agreed. but the racing should have been much better. why are these drivers dogging it? maybe if there were points for laps led, drivers might get up on the wheel, instead of stroking. denny himself was right -- for the guys locked into the chase, there is no incentive in the final four or five races of the regular season. the chase makes the regular season all but meaningless. or maybe the chase, instead of being a 12-man field, should be cut to a four or five man field. Now that would liven things up in August and early september, wouldn't it? dale jr? i dont know what to say -- he's won three races over the last six years, and one of those was a gas mileage race where he was just a 25th place car. jr. needs to do the tony stewart thing and turn JR Motorsports into a Cup operation.

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