NASCAR Barometer: Hamlin Has Perfect Richmond Night

NASCAR Barometer: Hamlin Has Perfect Richmond Night

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Denny Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates were the cars to beat all weekend in Richmond, and a mistake-free race made the difference to put the No. 11 in Victory Lane in the final regular-season race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup kicks off in Chicago this week. Without question, the Joe Gibbs Racing cars were the fastest machines on track through the weekend and during the race. Mistakes on pit road made the difference for the No. 11 team, however. While many other contenders dealt with loose wheels, speeding penalties or contact, Hamlin had a smooth night with fast pit work and perfect restarts. It was a confidence-building night for Hamlin as he begins his 2016 Chase quest on a high note.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin – Throughout practice, qualifying and Saturday night's race, Hamlin was consistently one of the fastest cars on track in Richmond. The No. 11 team had everything going its way at Hamlin's home racetrack, and perhaps more importantly, they were perfect on pit road all night. Restarts were another key to Hamlin staying ahead of the rest of the field through all of the caution periods late in the race. In the end, it was one final restart that enabled him to streak away from the rest of the field. Hamlin took the Chicago win last season and lead nine laps. A repeat visit to Victory Lane would send him through to the second knockout stage of the 2016 Chase.

Martin Truex Jr.

Denny Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates were the cars to beat all weekend in Richmond, and a mistake-free race made the difference to put the No. 11 in Victory Lane in the final regular-season race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup kicks off in Chicago this week. Without question, the Joe Gibbs Racing cars were the fastest machines on track through the weekend and during the race. Mistakes on pit road made the difference for the No. 11 team, however. While many other contenders dealt with loose wheels, speeding penalties or contact, Hamlin had a smooth night with fast pit work and perfect restarts. It was a confidence-building night for Hamlin as he begins his 2016 Chase quest on a high note.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin – Throughout practice, qualifying and Saturday night's race, Hamlin was consistently one of the fastest cars on track in Richmond. The No. 11 team had everything going its way at Hamlin's home racetrack, and perhaps more importantly, they were perfect on pit road all night. Restarts were another key to Hamlin staying ahead of the rest of the field through all of the caution periods late in the race. In the end, it was one final restart that enabled him to streak away from the rest of the field. Hamlin took the Chicago win last season and lead nine laps. A repeat visit to Victory Lane would send him through to the second knockout stage of the 2016 Chase.

Martin Truex Jr. – For the second week in a row, Truex was capable of running at the front of the field. He lead 193 laps to threaten for the win. The Joe Gibbs Racing affiliation really paid dividends in Richmond with the Toyotas clearly being the class of the field all weekend. Even a speeding penalty on pit road couldn't stop Truex from forcing his way back to the front of the field by the finish. The final restart saw Truex lose position to the charging Kyle Larson, but the third-place finish was his second consecutive top-five in the last two races before the Chase. Truex has two top-10 Chicago finishes in 10 starts at the midwestern track and kicks off his championship hunt this week.

Kurt Busch – Of the non-JGR cars able to run at the front of the field, Busch was one of the most competitive. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver was able to take the lead briefly and held himself in the top five through most of the distance. The late caution periods and resulting restarts dropped Busch to an eighth-place finish, which was his 17th top-10 finish of the season. Saturday's success was predicted by the pace Busch had been showing in recent races, and the effort gives even more credence to the belief that he could challenge for the championship by getting closer to the Toyotas. In 15 Chicago starts he carries an average finish of 15.6, but he finished ninth there last season.

Kyle Larson – Early in Saturday's race a loose front wheel forced Larson to make a return to pit road after his first stop under green-flag conditions. That extra cautionary stop forced him to relinquish valuable track position. The No. 42 made some adjustments to pit strategy in an effort to recover, however. Those adjustments paid off and led Larson to work his way back forward to run inside the top five in the final miles of Saturday's race, and one final charge on the final restart got Larson a runner-up finish. At Chicago, he finished inside the top 10 in both of his prior starts, and another finish like those in this week's race could help propel him into the next round of championship eliminations.

DOWNGRADE

Ryan Blaney – Blaney needed to win in Richmond to qualify for the Chase in his first full season in Sprint Cup competition. That didn't happen for the young driver, though. In fact, Blaney was the first car to bring out a caution when a flat rear tire heavily put him into the wall and into the garage to make extensive repairs, ending any thoughts of a potential championship. The young driver grabbed two top-fives and seven top-10s in his first season of Sprint Cup racing thus far, and he has the 10 Chase races remaining to continue to improve upon that record. Though his championship hopes are officially over, the future remains bright for this up-and-coming star of the series.

Tony Stewart – For the second week in a row, Stewart found himself fighting back through unfortunate circumstances, and ultimately allowed his temper to get the best of him. In Richmond he was turned around on pit road under caution as he turned into his pit stall. The crew serviced the car backward, and Stewart was able to return to racing. However, the miscue lost Stewart valuable track position in a race where being at the front of the pack meant more than most, but things got worse when a tangle with Ryan Newman took him completely out of the race. It was the second week in a row where Stewart's temper ruined his race, and a new perspective will be required if he expects to stay alive in the Chase.

Chase Elliott – Elliott showed very little speed throughout practice for Saturday night's race in Richmond. He was making progress in the early miles, but smacked the wall after about one quarter of the race distance was run. Elliott has never competed at Chicagoland in Sprint Cup equipment, but he did score a top-10 in Kansas earlier this season. His finishes at Las Vegas and Kentucky were both worse than 30th, however. Still, his 19th-place finish in Richmond was enough to earn a Chase entry in his rookie season. Elliott has been incredibly consistent and mature for a rookie in the series, and he continues to demonstrate that he has the skill to challenge for a title in his blooming career.

Matt Kenseth – Being one of the fastest cars on Saturday didn't count for much after a tire failure sent Kenseth hard into the wall and out of the race. While the finish didn't affect Kenseth's Chase prospects directly, it was a chance that slipped through his fingers. Momentum can mean a lot, especially with the three-race knockout format that makes up the Chase, and Kenseth lost his with the accident on Saturday. The Gibbs driver won the 2014 Chicago race and finished ninth there last season. His average finish of 11.3 at the circuit from 15 career starts still makes him a driver for fantasy players to consider this week, but he would make for a more confident choice if he regains his poise in practice and qualifying.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Jimmie Johnson – The slump that Johnson's team needed to overcome before the Chase showed no signs of loosening its grip last week. Johnson was running in the top 10 before a flat front tire sent him into the wall and out of contention for a top finish. Even following the contact, Johnson was forced to overcome two penalties on pit road. The team continues to struggle and make mistakes each week, and their prospects of hoisting another Sprint Cup are getting more and more remote. Johnson has finished in the top five at Chicago in 50 percent of his starts, and in the top 10 more than 70 percent. He needs a top finish to banish the trouble that has haunted his 2016 season.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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