Watch as Denny Hamlin wins the first race of the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
RELATED: See who is in the Chase RICHMOND, Va. – Denny Hamlin grimaced in pain as he was helped out of his No. 11 FedEx Toyota on Richmond International Raceway pit road Saturday night. Team members had bags of ice ready to lay on top of his swollen right knee – the result of a torn ACL suffered in a pick-up basketball game Tuesday night. Hamlin asked for a moment and took a seat on the pit wall – the pain of his injury lessened a bit by the impressive sixth-place finish he turned in during the Federated Auto Parts 400 regular season finale. Hamlin led twice for 14 laps and toughed out his 13th top-10 finish on the season only days after doctors said he could delay surgery on his knee until after the season. Relying on competitive adrenaline and championship motivation, Hamlin insisted his knee wasn't going to slow him down. And it sure didn't look like it did Saturday night. The Martinsville Speedway winner will be seeded 11th in the 16-car driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field heading into the first round of the 10-week playoffs next Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway . "I don't think the knee adds any stress [to the Chase]," Hamlin said. "The stress comes from making sure we don't have any mistakes. Just one silly mistake can take you out of it. I'm confident with the way we're running and the speed of the cars, so we should be OK. "Chicago, in general, has been really good for us. We tested there in the 11-car and we have one of the fastest crews out there, so a lot of things are in our favor." Hamlin's team owner, Joe Gibbs, revealed after the race that Hamlin was so intent on racing that he sent the team's back-up driver ( Erik Jones ) home early this weekend. "I feel real confident," Gibbs said of Hamlin managing his injury. "We've been through this before. Last time it was with his braking leg and he handled that well. We've got the best doctors in the world looking at him." Hamlin's teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch finished 1-2 in the race buoying his expectations and a wave of momentum for the JGR team that has won eight of the last 11 events – 11 of the last 21.
RELATED: Race results " Updated series standings " Chase standings update SHOP: Hamlin gear, die-casts JOLIET, Ill. -- In the theater, using the expression "Break a leg" is a way to wish an actor good luck on opening night. Twelve days before Sunday's opening Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway , Denny Hamlin tore the ACL in his right leg playing basketball. Late in the myAFibRisk.com 400 at the 1.5-mile track, Hamlin found his good fortune in the form of a serendipitous pit call on the part of crew chief Dave Rogers. Staying out on old tires, Hamlin grabbed the lead moments after a restart with five laps left and streaked away to a .963-second victory over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Carl Edwards , who surged from sixth to second during that restart on Lap 263 of 267. Hamlin saw an opening as the cars roared toward Turn 1 on the restart. "It was ballsy, but I'd been stuck so many times three-wide in the middle," Hamlin said of the winning move. "The front cars almost have a disadvantage to the back cars the way it all plays out. "We got a great restart, and I just held it wide open through (Turns) 1 and 2, and it stuck. We were able to get in that clean air and take off." WATCH: Hamlin asks reporters, 'Whose bracket did I break?' Remarkably, Hamlin won from the 29th starting position, rallying from a spin on Lap 2 that left him a lap down. Hamlin didn't get back on the lead lap until he took advantage of a wave-around before a restart on Lap 129. "Luckily, that one caution (for debris on the backstretch on Lap 122) came out that allowed us to get the wave-around and get back on the lead lap," Hamlin said. "We had a fast car, and that was the most important thing. We stretched out there at the end even with no tires. "I'm proud of this effort. The pit crew did a phenomenal job again and now we're looking forward to the next round." Hamlin's first victory at Chicagoland, his second of the season and the 16th of his career ensured the driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota will advance from the Challenger Round to the Contender Round of the Chase, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to New Hampshire and the second race of the postseason. Reigning champion Kevin Harvick wasn't as fortunate. The driver who vowed to pound the JGR drivers into the ground three days before the Chase began instead pounded the Turn 3 wall with the rear of his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet after contact with Jimmie Johnson 's No. 48 Chevy during a Lap 135 restart flattened Harvick's left rear tire. "I got a pretty good restart, and obviously, the 22 ( Joey Logano ) and 48 got a good run, and I just held my line and the 48 just slammed into the side of my door," Harvick said. "That was pretty much it." Johnson had a simple explanation for the contact. "He was pinning me down, and I've got to get back up on the track," Johnson said. "I wouldn't say that what he did is any different than other situations I've been in like that. When you're in Kevin's situation, you want to give that inside car a bad angle, so they've got to lift. "I was fine with lifting, but I had to get back on the race track. So I worked my way back onto the track… I pulled down inside of him, and then we were door-to-door, and then, as I moved back into the racing groove, that's when we touched door-to-door, tire-to-tire." WATCH: Harvick confronts, shoves Johnson after race Now last in the Chase standings, Harvick feels he must win one of the next two races to advance to the Contender Round. That's not a new position for the driver of the No. 4 Chevy. Last year he triumphed in a must-win situation at Phoenix before taking the checkered flag at Homestead to secure his first premier series title. "We can win anywhere," Harvick said after the race. "We could have won today. It's just a matter of putting a couple of days together and being able to come back to Victory Lane. Same thing as last year." After the race, Harvick, who finished 42nd, confronted Johnson and pounded the six-time Sprint Cup champion with a blow to the chest. Kept apart by one of Harvick's lieutenants, the drivers then went their separate ways without further incident. Kurt Busch , who like Hamlin stayed out on old tires, led the field to green on Lap 263 after the sixth caution for debris in Turn 1 slowed the race. Busch fell to third at the finish, followed by 2014 Chase runner-up Ryan Newman , who posted his first top-five finish since April at Bristol. Matt Kenseth ran fifth and assumed the series lead, bolstered by 12 bonus points earned for four victories in the 26-race regular season.
NASCAR.com’s Jonathan Merryman recaps a busy day in Chicago as tempers flared between Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, and Denny Hamlin took home a valuable win in the first race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Chase contender Denny Hamlin spins with AJ Allmendinger on Lap 2 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Denny Hamlin talks about his run at Chicagoland as he wins the first race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
RELATED: Complete race results " Updated series standings DARLINGTON, S.C. -- You could call polesitter Denny Hamlin 's victory in Saturday's VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200 at Darlington Raceway "dominating," but the NASCAR XFINITY Series event wasn't without its share of drama -- courtesy of a fuel shortage and Hamlin's own Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Daniel Suarez . Hamlin Led 117 of 147 laps at the 1.366-mile speedway, but he didn't make the winning pass until Lap 145, when he surged past Suarez, who was stretching fuel after foregoing a final pit stop in hopes of stealing the victory. The win was Hamlin's third of the season (all from the pole), his fourth at Darlington (all from the pole) and the 14th of his career. In a 1-2-3 finish for JGR, Kyle Busch got past Suarez, who finished third, to start the final circuit and came home in the runner-up position. But Suarez secured a $100,000 bonus as the top finisher among eligible series regulars in the final XFINITY Dash 4 Cash event of the season. Suarez also won $100,000 for Kurt Kolstad, a race fan paired with Suarez for the Dash 4 Cash finale. When Hamlin brought his No. 20 Toyota to pit road under caution on Lap 72, he returned to the track after a lightning fast stop during which his team left the fuel cell slightly short of a full load. That meant Hamlin would have to pit before his primary pursuers, Busch and Kevin Harvick , and hope the race would run caution-free for the entire cycle of stops. Hamlin got his wish. After pitting on Lap 122 and gaining time on fresh tires, a relieved Hamlin saw the race run caution-free to the end, giving him just enough time to catch Suarez, who was saving fuel on old rubber, before the laps ran out. "I'm almost glad we didn't (get the car full of fuel)," Hamlin said after the race. "We didn't want a caution to fall and trap us there, but I had scraped the wall and kind of misjudged my line one time and got a little right-side damage, and the car just stopped turning. "I don't know if the right side would have made it or not (under the pressure of all-out racing)." Harvick led 16 laps and finished fourth, his chances thwarted when the race ran green to the finish. "The 9 ( Chase Elliott ) hit the wall or was blowing up or something, and we stayed out a few extra laps, thinking that the caution was going to come out, and got a little bit behind," Harvick said. "The 20 ( Hamlin ) had the best car. We were better in the long run -- we could run him back down and race with him, but on the short run, those guys were a little bit better than we were." Chris Buescher ran fifth and extended his series lead to 29 points over Ty Dillon , who finished 15th, and 35 over Elliott, who came home 24th, three laps down, after his engine soured late in the race. Joey Logano , Kyle Larson , Landon Cassill , Regan Smith and Ross Chastain completed the top 10.
RELATED: Hamlin wins Chase opener " Can Harvick recover? Appearing on the "Dan Patrick Show" Monday morning, race winner Denny Hamlin gave his take on Sunday's Kevin Harvick - Jimmie Johnson incident -- who was in the wrong, and who would win in a boxing match. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had different answers for both. "I would have Kevin," Hamlin said when asked about the two drivers squaring off in the ring. "I'm with Jimmie on this incident, but I'm with Kevin if you're gonna have to box. I think he's probably more experienced. Kudos to Jimmie for kind of being the better man there and just kind of walking away." On-track contact between Johnson's No. 48 and Harvick's No. 4 left Harvick with a smoking tire, eventually resulting in his car spinning and smacking the outside wall. It left the 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion with a 42nd-place finish, and he's in danger of not advancing out of the Challenger Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . Johnson went to Harvick's motorhome in the driver's lot for a post-race explanation, and was given a hard punch to the chest when Harvick confronted him. "Usually things like this, what happens is Kevin goes in there, gets his car half-assed fixed and he goes out there and tries to wreck Jimmie," Hamlin said. "That's how it's gone the last few years, but it didn't happen. I appreciate that part of what Kevin did, he kept it professional on the race track. "In my opinion, Kevin didn't leave Jimmie any room, and Kevin had a lot of room on the outside. It was just hard racing." RELATED: See a photo timeline of the incident
Denny Hamlin talks about how Michael Jordan bet him that if he won the race at Chicagoland Speedway, Jordan would admit that Hamlin is a better driver than he is.
Denny Hamlin expresses confidence in his team's chances to surpise the critics during the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.