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Hamlin has Chase-caliber run in Richmond cutoff

September 12, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

Holds on to final wild card after crew repairs damaged car; reignites title hopes

RICHMOND, Va. -- Denny Hamlin dodged a number of potential Chase for the Sprint Cup-ending bullets Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway and, after finishing ninth in the Wonderful Pistachios 400, he figures he has a shot at his first championship.

"It was nerve-wracking," Hamlin said of his night, "because every person that could win and then knock us out [of the Chase] was running up front all day long, and it was just like, you know, if it wasn't one guy, it was another."

"It's amazing how we were able to battle back. This car is absolutely destroyed. ... It's kind of a second lease on life for us and our season. "

--DENNY HAMLIN

Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle and finally David Ragan -- any of whom could have knocked Hamlin out of the final wild-card spot in the Chase had he faltered -- all fell short, but Hamlin didn't know that for sure until the race was through.

"One of them was always a threat to win throughout the entire day," Hamlin said. "It was one of those days where ... very nervous moments."

Instead, Hamlin strode out of Richmond with his head up.

"Obviously we're coming into the Chase now with three consecutive top-10s, which I'm not sure we've done that all year long," Hamlin said. "We've got some momentum. Who knows what's going to happen next week?"

Hamlin was right --- he's scored two consecutive top-10s twice this season -- but not three. But Hamlin knew what had happened to him Saturday night and a short time after the race ended, he could hardly believe it.

"Well, everything from here is a bonus," Hamlin said after being told his team, which last year finished second in the championship, was the No. 12 seed for the eighth annual Chase.

"There's only one place to go from where we're at right now, and that's forward," Hamlin said. "We're very fortunate to be here, obviously, with the tough season that we've had and the ups and downs and the DNFs and what-not."

Saturday night was almost a microcosm of 2011 for Hamlin who, after winning eight races in 2010, has only won once so far this season. After starting a lowly 28th, he'd only raced eight laps when Bowyer spun between Turns 3 and 4 and set off a 13-car pileup that swept up Hamlin.

* Video: Hamlin gets caught up in early crash, suffers damage

"It looked like when the 33 [Bowyer] wrecked I checked up, someone hit the 88 [Dale Earnhardt Jr.], the 88 hit me and we just pounded the wall," Hamlin said. "So, right off the bat we knew we were in big trouble [but] still had an amazingly fast car.

"[A wreck] was not what I had planned on happening. I mean, we thought we were going to have a good car. We didn't know how our car was going to be because we changed a lot of stuff from [Friday]. But my car is just in shambles -- it's in bad, bad shape -- and somehow it ran as good as it did."

What his crew was able to do still had Hamlin shaking his head, several hours and 385 laps later.

"It's amazing how we were able to battle back," Hamlin said. "This car is absolutely destroyed. Any other race track we would be down 20 laps, but they just worked on it, got it off the race track and the splitter is broke off, the hood is broke and it's just a mess. And somehow we salvaged [the] day.

"It's kind of a second lease on life for us and our season."

In the process of effecting the initial repairs, Hamlin lost a lap to the leader. He restarted the race in 40th. But by the fourth caution, at Lap 38, Hamlin got a free pass to get back on the lead lap; from there, he steadily marched forward until he was back into the top 10 with 160 laps remaining.

"It was an unbelievable comeback," Hamlin said after eyeballing his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. "The shock mounts are all messed up, the splitter is broke off of it -- it's just amazing how fast we got this car [fixed] considering the circumstances.

"My pit crew just did an amazing job, that's all there is to it. They got the splitter somewhat off the race track and we were just able to motor up through there."

On Friday, Hamlin had sworn his team needed to find consistency to contend for the title. After finishing seventh at Bristol and eighth at Atlanta, prior to his Richmond run, he knows he's going in the right direction.

"I hope [it gives us some momentum]," Hamlin said. "The plan is to come out of here with a smooth day. It was not smooth by any means, but we just fought hard -- did an amazing job fixing the car, [which] is destroyed.

"That tells me how fast our car was going to be if we didn't get in that wreck -- we would've been up there contending for a win. But a top-10 in these circumstances, I'll take it."

What Hamlin, a Chesterfield, Va., native took out of Richmond, despite having his chance at winning his third consecutive Chase cutoff event blunted,- was still his eighth top-10 in 12 starts at his home track.

In his media briefing afterward, he rehearsed an impromptu "thank you speech" to his teammates.

"Oh my gosh -- they just did the best job I've ever seen them do as far as fixing the car after it got damaged," Hamlin reiterated. "It's hard for me to really assess how bad it is, but it looks better than what it really is, believe it or not, and it looks bad. They just did a great job.

"We had to add an inch worth of [shock] packers to the right front to get it off the ground. Who knows what we were going to have? But they just did a great job getting the splitter back up off the ground, things like that. They pretty much kept us in it."

And Hamlin did the rest to ensure his sixth consecutive Chase berth in his sixth full Cup season.