By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 11:18 PM
FORT WORTH - NASCAR's most exciting Chase for the Sprint Cup is about to get better after Denny Hamlin's surgical drive through the field Sunday in the AAA Texas 500.
Hamlin methodically navigated his way from 30th on the starting grid to the winners' circle to vault himself past Jimmie Johnson and into the championship lead on a wild afternoon that featured a record for lead changes at Texas Motor Speedway, a pair of mild-mannered veterans throwing fists on the track and the midrace replacement of Johnson's underperforming pit crew.
The most important development, though, was the shakeup at the top of the Chase.
Hamlin turned a 14-point deficit to Johnson into a 33-point lead on the four-time champion, who finished ninth and now finds himself trailing after eight Chase races for the first time since 2005. Kevin Harvick, meantime, tagged the outside retaining wall with 10 laps to go and sits 59 points behind after finishing sixth.
"The car definitely wasn't to my liking right at the beginning," said Hamlin, who also won here in April and has a series-best eight wins as he pursues his first Cup title. "But with every adjustment, we kept getting it closer and closer and closer. I knew we had a lot of potential and that when the sun went down it was going to be where I needed it to be."
Hamlin will take his tenuous hold on the Chase to Phoenix, where all three drivers have performed well. Johnson owns four wins and nine top-five finishes there, Hamlin has five top-fives in 10 starts and Harvick has two victories. The series will wrap up Nov. 21 in Homestead, Fla.
"With Phoenix being an up-and-down race track for me, I have to be really focused on practice day to get what I need and get [crew chief Mike Ford] the information he needs," Hamlin added. "Just stay 100 percent focused is all I can do. But I'm not going to be conservative with the lead. I'm going to want to stretch that out going to Homestead."
Hamlin battled a loose car for first half of the race, but still managed to steadily weave his way toward the front.
He took the lead with 29 laps remaining and stayed in command until a yellow flag with six laps to go. When the race resumed, Matt Kenseth pulled ahead of Hamlin momentarily coming off of Turn 2. But Kenseth let off the throttle to keep his race car out of the wall, and Hamlin zoomed past him on the inside on the back straightaway. Kenseth finished second and Mark Martin was third.
Hamlin's triumph capped an eventful race that included a Cup-record 33 lead changes on the tricky 1.5 mile track, a fight between Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton and a two-lap penalty assessed to Kyle Busch, who flipped off a NASCAR official after getting busted for speeding on pit road.
Burton said he had attempted to pull up beside Gordon while the race was under caution to apologize for cutting off Gordon on the previous lap. Instead, Burton rammed Gordon's car from behind, sending the No. 24 Chevy violently into the wall. After the two climbed from their mangled race cars, Gordon walked over to Burton, shoved him and attempted to punch before two NASCAR officials separated them.
"It was my fault, I didn't mean to hit him," Burton said of the bizarre incident. "I don't blame him for being mad. I wrecked him under caution."
Gordon added, "I've had a lot respect for him, but I lost a lot of respect today."
The most intriguing scene, though, occurred moments after the Gordon-Burton fisticuffs. Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, unhappy with the performance of the No. 48 pit crew members, replaced them with Gordon's. Johnson and Gordon are Hendrick Motorsports teammates, and Johnson had lost positions on four of the previous seven stops. The decision of Hamlin's team to intentionally pick the pit stall right in front of Johnson made any attempt to pick up ground more difficult.
"Ultimately it's my decision, obviously," Knaus said in a post-race television interview. "But we needed to do something. It's sad we had to do that, but [it was] in the interest of Hendrick Motorsports."
Asked about his pit crew for next weekend, Knaus added, "I'm hoping we get back with the 48 guys, we get everybody's confidence up and get this thing going in the right direction."
While the No. 48 team's uncharacteristic meltdown and Harvick's late miscue certainly helped Hamlin, he acknowledged he can't count on that the next two weeks.
"We're not going to force those guys to make a mistake," Hamlin said. "They've been here before. They know how to handle the pressure. It's going to be on us to flat-out outperform them. We have to go to [Phoenix] with our guns loaded and see if we can't get another win."