Denny Hamlin found himself in a perilous position during the final laps at Martinsville Speedway Sunday, but was ultimately able to escape elimination and snag the final transfer spot.
Hamlin, 39, has made the Championship 4 for the third time since 2014 when the current format was introduced. It was no easy task despite entering this race with a 27pt cushion and seven wins this season.
As the laps ticked away, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver faded and suddenly found himself on the edge of elimination. Brad Keselowski marched forward, moving ahead of Hamlin in the standings.
That left Kevin Harvick, who struggled throughout the 500 lap race, to try and bridge the gap to Hamlin.
JGR teammates Erik Jones and Martin Truex Jr. (who was off the lead lap due to an unscheduled pit stop) helped stop the bleeding as they ended up behind Hamlin and were able to keep other challengers at bay.
It was all in Harvick’s hands now and he wasted no time, muscling his way past Matt DiBenedetto. He needed one more position to tie on points, knowing he’d prevail in a tiebreaker situation. The regular season champion closed in on Kyle Busch, Hamlin’s other Gibbs teammate. In the final corner of the final lap, contact was made, both drivers spun, and Hamlin was safe.
When the smoke cleared, Hamlin was eight points above the cut line. He will join race winner Chase Elliott, as well as Team Penske driver Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski in the Championship 4.
“It was tough,” he said of the race. “Our car was fading a little bit. I was also getting into some spots where I was getting roughed up by some teammates, not really ours, just some of the guys that are in the battle. I didn’t even want to be a part of it, so I would just get out of it and then I put myself in an interesting spot where the 4 (Kevin Harvick) was going for it a little bit and we were very fortunate he didn’t go for it any further than he did. We did just enough. That’s what we needed to do – is do enough to make it to Phoenix and give ourselves a shot at the championship. This FedEx team definitely deserves to be in the top four and glad that we are able to give it a shot next week.”
Hamlin didn’t want to make any predictions for the finale, but stated that “we can win any given week for sure.
“The short tracks haven’t been great for us all year, but you just never know. Last year, we went there and nearly lapped the field, so who knows how it’s going to turn out. One race, winner take all, you never know.”
He later added: “It’s an entirely different ballgame now. It really is. The aerodynamic package is a lot different. There’re no similarities that you can really draw to it. You just never know. Obviously, we’re going to be ready and we’re going to be prepared and hopefully we’ll go out there and show what we’ve got.”
Hamlin and Harvick were consistently picked out as the title favorites throughout the 2020 season, winning a combined 16 of 35 races.
Although having such a threat eliminated before the finale could be beneficial for Hamlin and JGR, he admitted that the No. 4 team was deserving of a shot at the championship.
“I think they deserve to be in. They have nine wins. There’s not a person on this planet that would say they aren’t a top-four team. We wanted to create a Game 7 moment, so this is what you get. If you have a bad race or two in a three-race series, you’re out. We’re very fortunate with our FedEx team to be able to lean on all the work that we did in the regular season to get Playoff points and win the most stages throughout the season than anyone else. We’re optimistic, we’ll see.”
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