The Virginia native from Chesterfield fought off numerous challenges from Jimmy Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch to win the last event before NASCAR’s 10-race version of a playoff begins next Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The victory was Hamlin’s second at his home-state track and his series-leading sixth of the season, which gives him the top seed for the playoff races.
Twelve drivers qualify for the playoffs and their points are recalculated beginning at New Hampshire. Each of the 12 drivers get 5,000 points plus 10 bonus points for each win this season. Hamlin’s six wins put him atop the list with 5060 points. Jimmie Johnson, who finished third Saturday night, is seeded second with five wins, for 5050 points. Kyle Busch, runner-up Saturday night, will be seeded fourth. Regular-season points leader Kevin Harvick, who was ninth Saturday night, will be seeded third.
Rounding out the top 10 finishers Saturday night were Joey Logano, Marcos Ambrose, Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, A J Allmendinger and Carl Edwards.
Drivers in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup include Hamlin, Johnson, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Bowyer.
This was the 26th race of the 2010 season and most drivers were focused on winning because 10 of the top 12 spots in the series standings were decided before the green flag fell on the Air Guard 400 at Richmond.
Edwards drove away to a good lead while Montoya, Allmendinger and Bowyer raced hard for the second spot. Actually, Bowyer, who started the race 12th, needed only a 28th-place finish to clinch the 12th and final position in the Chase. Biffle, who was 11th in the standings starting the race, needed only a 42th-place finish to clinch a spot. Biffle was cruising around mid-pack in the early going.
After 25 of 400 laps, Edwards held a half-second lead over Montoya and Allmendinger with Bowyer and Johnson just behind. David Reutimann was next, followed by Logano, Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard and Stewart.
Reutimann brought out the first caution after a tap from Kurt Busch on the 57th lap turned him around. Reutimann remained on the lead lap and did no apparent damage to his Toyota.
Jason Leffler had to park his Toyota about this time and his withdrawal from the race clinched a spot in the Chase for Biffle.
On the restart at Lap 63, Edwards was out front with Johnson right behind him. Bowyer was next, followed by Stewart, Allmendinger, Montoya, Kenseth, Keselowski, Menard and Kurt Busch.
Bowyer took the lead shortly before the 100-lap mark with Edwards and Johnson in tow. Hamlin had worked his way to fourth place. Allmendinger was fifth.
Hamlin took the lead a few laps later and the top 10 included Bowyer, Johnson, Allmendinger, Kenseth, Montoya, Stewart, Edwards, Burton and Kyle Busch.
Terry Labonte brought out the second caution of the night on Lap 145 when a cut tire sent him into the wall.
Hamlin had the lead on the restart at Lap 152 but Johnson took over a couple laps later. Hamlin, Johnson and Bowyer swapped the lead like trading cards before a caution came out on Lap 226 for raindrops.
When the race restarted on lap 241, Hamlin was back out front.