Ham­lin has mo­men­tum on his side

Vir­ginia driver wins at Rich­mond, has eight top-10 fin­ishes in row

Baltimore Sun - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - By Marty O’Brien

RICH­MOND — How valu­able mo­men­tum is to start the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is a mat­ter of de­bate. The for­mat of three three-race elim­i­na­tion rounds that whit­tles 16 qual­i­fiers to four for the fi­nal leaves lit­tle room for er­ror re­gard­less of form.

In­dis­putable at the mo­ment is who pos­sesses mo­men­tum.

If mo­men­tum is your guide to pick­ing fa­vorites for the Sprint Cup’s 10-race play­off, look no fur­ther than the top three in the Fed­er­ated Auto Parts 400 at Rich­mond In­ter­na­tional Race­way on Satur­day night: win­ner Denny Ham­lin, se­cond-place Kyle Lar­son and third-place Martin Truex Jr.

Truex won six days ear­lier at Dar­ling­ton be­fore lead­ing a race­high 193 laps Satur­day. He dom­i­nated the first half of the race and led as late as Lap 321 (of 407). But, with a car bet­ter suited for long runs, the seven restarts caused by a rash of ac­ci­dents over the last 86 laps did not suit him.

Lar­son en­ters the Chase on the heels of a win at Michi­gan (his first vic­tory), third at Dar­ling­ton and run­ner-up at Rich­mond. With fresher tires than Ham­lin at the end, he would have ben­e­fited from one more restart.

Ham­lin might be hottest of all, be­cause his string of top10s is now eight races. In the past five races he has won at Watkins Glen and Rich­mond, and placed third at Bris­tol and fourth at Dar­ling­ton.

Satur­day’s win at his home track was the most sat­is­fy­ing of all.

“Yeah, that’s what’s so spe­cial about it, [is that] you get to do it home,” said Ham­lin, who won at Rich­mond for the third time, and the first in six years. “I see all the ex­tra Denny Ham­lin shirts and hats and ev­ery­thing, and [it] fires me up ev­ery time I get here.”

The Ch­ester­field, Va., na­tive in­di­cated he would have liked to make a late pit stop as the race was Denny Ham­lin wins the Fed­er­ated Auto Parts 400 at Rich­mond In­ter­na­tional Race­way on Satur­day night. “What’s so spe­cial about it [is that] you get to do it home,” said Ham­lin, a na­tive of Ch­ester­field, Va. ex­tended from a sched­uled 400 laps to 407 by the track-record 16 cau­tions. Crew chief Mike Wheeler ve­toed that and Ham­lin held off the hard-charg­ing Lar­son by .06 of a se­cond.

“I didn’t think stay­ing out was the right thing to do, but great call there,” Ham­lin said.

While the race did not lack con­tact, it did not pro­duce any of the drama typ­i­cal of the one that fi­nal­izes the Chase field. A dozen driv­ers had al­ready qual­i­fied for the Chase and two others, Chase El­liott and Austin Dil­lon, were in vir­tu­ally in­vul­ner­a­ble po­si­tions to qual­ify at the drop of the green flag.

Re­al­is­ti­cally, only the fi­nal two spots were on the line.

With a win in hand, Chris Buescher only needed not to lose his 11-point lead over David Ra­gan for 30th in the Cup stand­ings — the cut­off point for a race win­ner to ad­vance to the Chase. Buescher fin­ished 24th and Ra­gan, who wrecked late, fin­ished 34th.

Go­ing into Rich­mond, Jamie McMur­ray had a siz­able 22-point cush­ion on Ryan New­man for the last spot into the Chase on points. McMur­ray ran in the top10 al­most all night and fin­ished sev­enth.

New­man’s re­mote chances of mak­ing the Chase ended late in the race, when Tony Ste­wart wrecked him in­ten­tion­ally be­cause he said New­man had run into him three times in the race. In a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view af­ter the in­ci­dent, New­man crit­i­cized his for­mer boss at Ste­wart-Haas Rac­ing.

“I guess he thought he was in a sprint car again,” New­man said. “Didn’t want to con­trol his anger.

“Just dis­ap­point­ing that you have some­body old like that that should be re­tired the way he drives. It’s just ridicu­lous.

“I don’t think there was any rea­son other than him just be­ing bipolar and hav­ing anger is­sues.”

Ste­wart, who ral­lied from well be­hind in the Chase in 2011 to over­take Carl Edwards and win his third Cup ti­tle, shook off New­man’s blast with a cou­ple of quips and ad­dressed the topic of mo­men­tum.

“What you do up to the start of the Chase re­ally doesn’t mean any­thing, ob­vi­ously — 2011 is proof of that,” Ste­wart said. “All I care about now is get­ting ready for [the first Chase race in] Chicago and run­ning through Sun­day in Chi- cago.”

De­fend­ing cham­pion Kyle Busch, ninth Satur­day, was more mixed on the sub­ject.

“This one doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean a whole lot,” he said of Rich­mond. “You’d kind of like to have the mo­men­tum head­ing in your di­rec­tion and go­ing the right way for you.” Ham­lin does. “I said I thought we were like an 81⁄ on mo­men­tum,” Ham­lin said, adding that he doesn’t be­lieve in 10. “I said if we won the race, we’d go to a 9. Hard for me not to say it’s 91⁄ at this point.

“It’s a great team ef­fort for us. We’ve got ev­ery­thing go­ing for us.”

SEAN GARD­NER/GETTY IMAGES

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