Denny Hamlin figured if he was going to make a run at Jimmie Johnson’s points lead, there was no better place to start than Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
Hamlin passed Kevin Harvick for the lead with 29 laps to go Sunday and earned his third consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup win at the smallest circuit in the series.
“I don’t think I’ve ever closed that well, ever,” Hamlin said after his 15th career victory, his series-best seventh this year and his fourth at Martinsville.
He didn’t view the race as a must-win, but rather “must finish in front of,” he said.
And the victory came after a miserable start. Determined to outqualify Johnson and get the sometimes critical first pit stall, Hamlin won the pole for just the second time this season. Johnson qualified 19th, and Harvick 36th.
But once the race began, Hamlin went backward. By the first caution and restart about 50 laps in, he was behind both of them. Johnson was eighth, Harvick ninth and Hamlin 12th.
“I was very worried,” he said. “Everyone saw how far back we were dropping and I thought it was the end of our day. We kept fighting, kept digging, kept making up spots.”
Hamlin became the first driver since Johnson in 2007 to sweep both races here, and he and Harvick closed the gap on Johnson in the points race with four events to go. Hamlin cut his 41-point deficit to six, the smallest with four races left since the Chase began in 2004.
“Who said this was over?” Hamlin asked after the race. “I told you it wasn’t over.”
Harvick finished third after Mark Martin passed him late, but Harvick had his best showing in 19 career starts at the 0.526-mile oval; he’d never been better than seventh.
“We kept the 48 behind us and the 11 in sight in what everybody said was a two-horse race, and we were right there in the middle of it,” Harvick said. He gained 15 points in the standings and now trails Johnson by just 62 heading to Talladega, where he won in the spring.
“It’s a lot of fun right now,” Harvick said.
Johnson, the four-time defending series champion, rallied to finish fifth.
• Top 12 in Points: 1. J. Johnson, 5,998; 2. D. Hamlin, 5,992; 3. K. Harvick, 5,936; 4. Ky. Busch, 5,826; 5. J. Gordon, 5,795; 6. C. Edwards, 5,785; 7. T. Stewart, 5,762; 8. J.Burton, 5,752; 9. Ku. Busch, 5,721; 10. M. Kenseth, 5,705; 11. G. Biffle, 5,682; 12. C. Bowyer, 5,592.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso won the Korean Grand Prix at Yeongam, South Korea, and took over the Formula One championship lead on a terrible day for rival Red Bull.
McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton was second, followed by Ferrari’s Felipe Massa.
Red Bull’s Mark Webber led the championship going into the race, but spun out, and teammate Sebastian Vettel had a late engine failure while leading.
The race was red-flagged after only two laps because of persistent rain and standing water on the track. After resuming, the race went the distance but finished in darkness.