Denny Hamlin has dominated Richmond on several occasions without winning but, on Saturday night, he finally got the payoff he has deserved, leading 299 of 400 laps in the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 to get his first win at his home track.
The win was Hamlin's second of the year and the sixth of his career and helped set aside his past disappointments at Richmond. In spring 2008, Hamlin led 381 laps and finished sixth after cutting a tyre late in the race. Earlier this year, he led 148 laps but finished 14th.
Kurt Busch ran second, followed by Jeff Gordon, while polesitter Mark Martin also secured a place in the Chase with a fourth-place result.
"This is like a Daytona 500 win for anyone else,” the winner enthused, “This is my house. It has been for the last two years, but we just haven't got the win to show for it. Finally, today, our FedEx Toyota showed that we're a championship contender.”
Hamlin, however, had to share the spotlight with Brian Vickers, who drove his way into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with a seventh-place finish at the 0.75-mile short track. Vickers knocked 25th-place finisher Matt Kenseth out of the twelfth and final berth in the Chase, and beat fifth-place finisher Kyle Busch for the position by eight points.
In addition to Vickers and Martin, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya and Greg Biffle also claimed Chase berths, while Hamlin, Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and points leader Tony Stewart were already locked in. The twelve drivers will now be reseeded according to their victories in the season's first 26 races before the ten-race Chase begins next week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. With 40 bonus points for four wins, Martin is set to be confirmed as the Chase's top seed.
The night's biggest casualty was Kenseth, who won't be a part of the Chase for the first time since the inception of NASCAR's play-off system in 2004 after struggling with the handling of his #17 Ford all evening.
“It amazes me that, every week, we don't have any adjustments that help the front tyres and make them happier,” a frustrated Kenseth radioed to his crew on lap 242.
Kenseth's exit leaves Johnson as the only driver who has qualified for all six editions of the Chase, but the suspense wasn't whether Kenseth would fall out of the Chase, but rather whether Busch or Vickers would supplant him.