Driver's season silences critics

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RICHMOND, Va. --- Denny Hamlin faced adversity before he even had a chance to live up to his billing as the popular pick to unseat Jimmie Johnson as Sprint Cup champion.

Denny Hamlin won his sixth race of the season Saturday, the most of any driver this year. He will open the Chase in first.  Clem Britt/Associated Press
Clem Britt/Associated Press
Denny Hamlin won his sixth race of the season Saturday, the most of any driver this year. He will open the Chase in first.

He tore a knee ligament in a pickup basketball game in January, just a few weeks before the start of the season, to raise questions about his physical ability to compete at NASCAR's highest level. When he stumbled out of the gate with a series of poor finishes, he was hit with the snickering from naysayers.

Hamlin refused to fade.

He instead rattled off five wins in 10 races and revived his title chances.

Locked into a tie with Johnson for the top seed in the Chase, Hamlin claimed sole possession Saturday night with a dominating win at Richmond International Raceway.

"We're tough right now," Hamlin said after his series-best sixth win. "We've got the most wins and hopefully that will carry us for the rest of the season. At this point, I'd say we could win at all of (the final 10 tracks)."

The past four years have belonged to Johnson, who had his hands full with Hamlin for part of last year's Chase, and he has no doubt that will again be the case this year.

"I look to how he ran in the Chase last year. He was very, very strong through all of those races and had a problem at California that kind of took him out," Johnson said. "Maybe I took for granted with how well Denny ran last year that he would just be there (in contention). That's been the reality to me, that he's going to be one of the guys to race for it."

Let the Chase begin

DRIVER POINTS

1. Denny Hamlin 5,060

2. Jimmie Johnson 5,050

3. Kevin Harvick 5,030

4. Kyle Busch 5,030

5. Kurt Busch 5,020

6. Tony Stewart 5,010

7. Greg Biffle 5,010

8. Jeff Gordon 5,000

9. Carl Edwards 5,000

10. Jeff Burton 5,000

11. Matt Kenseth 5,000

12. Clint Bowyer 5,000

NEXT RACE

WHAT: Sylvania 300

WHERE: New Hampshire Motor Speedway

WHEN: 1 p.m. Sunday

ON TV: ESPN

2009 CHAMPION: Mark Martin

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