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A battle of the coolheads? Hamlin vs Harvick vs Johnson.....now heading to Talladega

   Mike Ford's crew works over Denny Hamlin's car during Sunday's Martinsville 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern



   It was a classic Jimmie Johnson performance – this time by title challenger Denny Hamlin, who went into Sunday's Martinsville 500 fired up after five straight 'defensive'  battles in opening weeks of the championship chase.
   Hamlin started from the pole, and he was clearly under pressure here after vowing Friday to take the game right at Sprint Cup tour leader Jimmie Johnson.
   So when Hamlin went backwards right at the start, things were looking, well, grim.

   And most of the race Hamlin didn't appear to have a car strong enough to challenge Kevin Harvick or Jeff Burton for the win.
   But late Hamlin came on strong and charged away to his seventh win of the year.
   "We're back, baby, back in victory lane, with our first chase win," Hamlin said as he crossed the finish line half a second ahead of surprising Mark Martin.
    For an aggressive driver like Hamlin this season, playing things so cautiously and conservatively up till now has been almost painful:
   "I've learned the patience of saving the car until the end," Hamlin said, repeating the word 'patience' several times in describing how he's handled this season.
   Indeed, while teammate Kyle Busch has emotionally over-reacted numerous times this season, and now finds himself far out of the hunt (172 points down), Hamlin has exuded patience, even when clearly goaded.
   And it's been quite a season for Hamlin up till now:
   Hamlin came into the season as favored to be the man to dethrone four-time champ Johnson. But the season didn't open well for him.
   However, when Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford caught fire they went on a tear, winning five of 10 during a spring span.
   Then, though, came another slump.
   Making the playoff cut wasn't an issue, but Hamlin didn't have the hot iron for a long stretch, and then he was playing defense, deliberately, the first five races of the chase, at Loudon, N.H., Dover, Del., Kansas City, California and Charlotte. As wild as some of the action has been, particularly on the double-file restarts, Hamlin probably used the best strategy.

  Can't say these guys aren't taking it to each other: Kevin Harvick (outside) versus Jimmie Johnson, in some testy action (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   In fact it has been Johnson who has been the firebrand out on the track, last weekend at Charlotte and again here dueling very hard with Kyle Busch for position down the stretch, bumping, pushing and shoving, right to the edge. And Johnson conceded Sunday he was a little miffed at some of Busch's moves.
   Is Busch working to help his teammate win the title? Undoubtedly.
   And every five points counts.
   So this title chase isn't just a three-man battle among Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick, but also involving their teammates too.

   After five defensive runs, Hamlin had been pointing at this particular race as the turning point for his title bid....which he conceded created a lot of pressure early in the race, as it turned out, when he wasn't running that well.
   Burton led the most laps, 134, and he was in quite a tiff late with teammate Harvick, who led 97 laps. On the radio the two argued vociferously about the other's tactics.
   That eventually proved moot.
   Hamlin finally got around Harvick for the lead with 30 laps – 15 miles to go – and was off to the races, while Harvick wound up battling non-chaser Martin (Johnson's teammate) for second, while Johnson eased home fifth.
   And when he climbed out of Ford's car Hamlin was downright jubilant.
   "Who said it was over?! I told you it wasn't over!" Hamlin said almost gleefully....referring to anyone ready to concede the championship to Johnson.
   Johnson and Hamlin have dominated the action here the last several years, "So everyone figured one of the two of us was going to win here," Hamlin said. "But for much of the race it looked like neither of us would finish top-five.
   "So it's good to come out of here gaining points. If we'd lost points....
   "The way we ran all day, we were going to lose 50 or 60 points....and that would have been pretty hard to make up at Talladega."
   That's next Sunday's stop, the biggest wild card of the 10-race chase.
   How will the three title contenders play Talladega? Hard to say right now.
   But Hamlin seems to feel he's got enough for Talladega to gain more points on Johnson there, if he plays it aggressively enough.
  Harvick may be one of the Talladega favorites, after his win there in the spring, but Hamlin isn't bad at all at the tour's biggest, baddest, fastest track.

  How many wins now? Team owner Joe Gibbs (L) senses Denny Hamlin may give his first NASCAR championship since Tony Stewart in 2005 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Sunday's run here, Hamlin said was just what he wanted, and needed:  "Given how I've raced over this chase so far, this is our best-case scenario. I don't like playing defense at all. To come here and play offense all day, it's just  a huge boost going forward.
    "Now at Talladega....nobody knows what to expect...but we have been pretty strong at Talladega lately."

   This Martinsville 500 wasn't exactly a 'must win' for Hamlin, though maybe it was, given his record here, and Johnson's, but Hamlin said he knew what the deal was: "This was a 'must finish in front of him.' We couldn't, just couldn't lose points to him at this track. I just made sure I was right there in that chain and kept those guys close....until with 100 to go I figured we had to get aggressive.
   "And that pit stop put us in position to win.
   "We're closing better this year than we've ever done. And we've kept ourselves in the chase.
   "There have been so many highs and lows this year....but all I can ask is that each year I get a little better, that I can learn from my mistakes. I've been in four chases, and I try to avoid making those mistakes again."

     The day didn't look very good at the start.
    "It looked pretty grim at the start of the race," crew chief Ford said.
   "We were fortunate not to panic and lose the race right at the beginning."
   "Had it gone a green flag run we'd have probably gone a lap down," Hamlin said.  "A few years ago I might have panicked....but I just knew Mike was going to get this thing dialed in.
   "We just never had the speed those guys had the first 20 or 30 laps of a run. At one point I was surprised I could keep pace with those guys over a short run. I knew we could run with them over a long run."


   Jeff Burton had the car to beat for a while, until he burned up the right-rear tire (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Harvick and Burton had the best cars most of the day, Hamlin said. Even though Harvick started deep in the field, with poor pit selection, he got to the front with ease and stayed there.
   "It helps to have a good pit stall here, but you can come from the back here, and Kevin did that," Hamlin said.
   Harvick pointed to his pit crew, borrowed from teammate Clint Bowyer, at team owner Richard Childress' request.
   "That's what we've got to do -- We kept Jimmie behind us and Denny in sight....in what everybody said was a two-horse race. We were right there in the middle of it," Harvick said.
   "We've got four more weeks. I'm looking forward to Talladega."  
   This flat half-mile hasn't been a great track for Harvick over the years. But you couldn't tell that Sunday. He said his team this season "has done a great job at what we call some of our worst tracks. We come here -- where we never had a top-five --- and to come out with a third is what it's all about."
   Johnson had a so-so day, for a guy who has won here so many times.
   "We were much stronger on the short run than we were on the long run, and the way this thing unfolded in the end there was a lot of long runs," Johnson said.
   The final 97 laps were green.
    "But another top-five, we can't be too disappointed in that," Johnson said. Since opening the chase with a 25th at New Hampshire, Johnson has reeled off a first, a second, two thirds and now two fifths.

    Burton was not happy at the end, saying he killed his right-rear tire the last run. "We didn't have that problem all day, and had it on the last run, so I am really disappointed," Burton said.
    And what was the deal about with Harvick?
   "I don't know," Burton said. "I have yet to understand what he was upset about.  I have no clue what he could be possibly upset about. 
    "I cleared him and turned to the bottom, just like he cleared me when he passed me on the restart, turning to the bottom. 
     "It's Martinsville and that is what you do. 
     "I am sure it's heat of the moment. I am sure he is racing for the championship and he is up on the edge....because I didn't do anything wrong.
    "There will come a point when he realizes that everybody in the world is not against him.
     "And every time it's a conflict, he is involved. 
     "You would think, over the years he has done it, he would get the hint that he is always in the middle of it...and maybe sometimes if he just backed up a little bit and caught his breath, he would be okay.
     "I'm not out to harm him. I am a teammate, and I am trying to help him."
    Those weren't Burton's only issues. NASCAR warned him a couple of times while leading on restarts not to brake-check on the start.
   "I wasn't brake checking anybody," Burton insisted. "I never once touched the brakes leaving turn four.
    "But they felt like I was, and it's their job to police the sport."


   Denny Hamlin at the finish line (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Burton and Harvick

I'm sorry Burton is upset but Harvick being in the 'middle of everything', is because he's going for a championship. It used to be called 'team orders' that when someone was running for a title, the other team members got out of the way. Get it over it, Jeff, ok?

Good point about team orders!

I have the utmost respect for Jeff Burton, both on the racetrack and off, particularly as a spokesman for safety issues...and 99% of the time, he is a gentleman racer in the mold of Mark Martin. However, occasionally frustrations reach their limit, and I think that's what we saw Sunday...as Jeff has had a strong car all season with very little to show for it. Seriously folks-outside of speeding on pit road, when have you seen Burton penalized, or EVEN threatened with a penalty?

That said, as a longtime RCR fan of Big E / Harvick, I'm actually glad to see this sort of conflict between teammates. Richard Childress is one of a few "classy" owners in NASCAR: A former racer who started with next to nothing, and hired a rough-around-the-edges Dale Earnhardt to drive his #3 machine, and we all know how that worked out! Compare Childress to these guys:

Hendrick: A big-time car dealer ('nuff said!)....

Gibbs: showed what a wonderful Christian he is by kicking respected driver Bobby Labonte to the curb, and hiring two arrogant punks (talented or not, they're still punks).

For the "Johnny come lately" NASCAR fans, let me tell you what "team orders" can do to affect the legitimacy of a championship...the 2003 Craftsman Truck Series championship came down to the final race of the season. Brendan Gaughan had a 26-point lead going into the final race at Homestead over Ultra Motorsports' Ted Musgrave...and Ultra's owner, Jim Smith, showed his "class" by entering FIVE trucks in this race...of which the #10, driven by the washed-up/never won a race Marty Houston, deliberately wrecked Gaughan halfway through the event. In a blessed example of irony, Musgrave was black-flagged for jumping a restart, and lost the championship anyway.

There is now way on God's green Earth that I, and likely most long-time NASCAR fans, will accept Jimmie's 4 titles as legit. Had Brian France left things alone, yes, JJ would have EARNED 2 titles; fine. But, had this nonsense "Chase" never come about, we would be discussing when Jeff Gordon was going to tie Earnhardt and Petty, as Gordon would have 6 championships.

Fear not, boys and girls: If it comes down to a 3-horse race at Homestead with JJ, Denny, and Harvick, you can all but guarantee that someone in the Gibbs or Hendrick cars will "accidentally" take someone out...

Ditto - Well said

Ditto - Well said

Burton & Harvick

what Burton is talking about is more than just what happened yesterday. harvick has had a fight at some point with most of the drivers in the garage for one supposed slight or another. Do you not remember the whole defending RCR thing this year at Dover when he hit Hamlin several times both on pit road and during practice because of what Hamlin said about Bowyer's car. What did that have to do with him or his #29 team. Nothing. How about Harvick and Edwards, Biffle when he jumped over a car on pit road to attack Biffle. Harvick a few years back got between Johny Sauter and matt kenseth after a Busch race at Richmond when Sauter got into Kenseth late and bumped him out of the way. Sauter was driving a RCR Busch car that day, but so what, since when is he guy who decides what another driver can say or can do on the track when it doesn't involve him personally. How about the time he was mad at Ron Hornaday for racing him too hard last season and told him so. I'm not a fan of Ron but what he did wrong still eludes him till today I'm sure. You talk about teammates, how about the time Harvick put Newman in his Truck and Newman took points away from Ron costing him the championship. He said he was a "racer" and that's why he did it. His version of right and wrong is definitely debatable. For the record I'm not a fan of any of these drivers but keep in mind at the end of the day they all race for themselves and are teammates when it suits them and their cause.

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Good point about team orders!

There is no way to know how many titles JJ would have won under the old rules. When the rules changed, JJ's team changed they way they raced. They were the first and best to adjust to the Chase rules and that is why they are successful. They emphasized preparation for scoring points in the Chase, not the regular season, and they succeeded. If the rules had not changed, they would have taken a different approach to the season, and no one knows how many titles they would have won.

I am not a JJ fan, but I do wind up pulling for him sometimes when he competes against drivers that I dislike if he is the only one that can beat them.

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