MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- After winning Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway, Denny Hamlin had one question for anyone who said the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship was over and Jimmie Johnson would be on the way to his record-extending fifth consecutive title.
"Who said it was over," Hamlin asked after he won the sixth race in the Chase. "Told you it wasn't over."
In fact, this year's Chase is from being over. Johnson came to Martinsville with a 41-point advantage over Hamlin. But Hamlin's win allowed him to trim 35 points of Johnson's lead.
"That's not a huge amount," said Johnson, who finished fifth at Martinsville. "You hate to see it vanish. I'm really trying to not be emotionally attached to things until we get out of Talladega."
The six points that currently separate Johnson from Hamlin is the closest points margin between first and second place with four races to go in the Chase since NASCAR began it's playoff format for it's premier series in 2004.
Kevin Harvick is also in the thick of it. His third-place run at Martinsville moved him to within 62 points of Johnson.
Hamlin and Johnson have combined for the last nine wins at Martinsville. Johnson had been the dominant driver here by winning five out of six races from October 2006 to March 2009. But Martinsville has been Hamlin's "house" lately, as he has won the last three races at this 0.526-mile short track.
"Had we lost points to [Johnson] here, it probably would have been a big blow as far as my confidence going forward," Hamlin said. "This probably is my best racetrack. It's his best racetrack. I feel like I have been better than him in the last couple years."
Hamlin's first win at Martinsville came in the spring 2008 race.
Despite starting on the pole, Hamlin's latest win at Martinsville didn't come easy. He dealt with an ill-handling car and fell back as far as 15th early in the race. But Hamlin's pit crew, under the guidance of crew chief Mike Ford, made proper adjustments to his car throughout the race, which helped him get back into contention for the win. Hamlin grabbed the lead from Harvick with 30 laps remaining, and then held it for his series-leading seventh victory of the season.
"This probably is the most gratifying win I've had so far, simply because we didn't have the best car all day," he said. "We just fought and fought and fought and kept working on it. I kept trying to be patient."
Before heading to Martinsville last week, Hamlin, who hails from nearby Chesterfield, VA, said he expected to win at his home track. He indeed lived up to his prediction.
Hamlin was considered as Johnson's biggest threat for the title at the start of the season. After winning the final race of the regular season last month at Richmond, Hamlin earned the first seed for the Chase, but his top ranking would be short lived.
When Johnson took over the points lead from Hamlin earlier this month at Kansas, it looked as though Johnson was drafting his next Chase saga of "Catch Me If You Can."
The writing has stopped...at least for now.
"I like being behind and chasing a guy," Hamlin said. "I do not like playing defense at all. So to come [at Martinsville] and play offense all day, going through diversity to get this win, it's a huge boost going forward."
Moving forward it is with next weekend's race at Talladega -- the "crapshoot" in the Chase. There's no doubt that anything can happen at Talladega, as far as points are concerned.
"Last year, Mark [Martin] caught me in the points, right there with me on the points," Johnson said. "I'm running sixth [at Talladega], and he's running seventh coming to the checkered flag. His car gets hit, he gets hit and he is upside down. I'm just one spot ahead of him. I finish the race and get a bunch of points."
If Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick don't suffer any setbacks at Talladega, then who knows how the battle for the championship will shape up during the final three races -- Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.