CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Mired in traffic in the closing laps of the March race at Martinsville Speedway, Denny Hamlin bulldozed his way through the crowd determined to be first to the finish line.
``I think no matter what, we were going to win that race,'' Hamlin recalled this week of his sensational drive through the pack to his first victory of the season.
He needs to have the same mindset Sunday when he goes into the sixth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship trailing four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson by 41 points.
Nobody is in the same class at Martinsville as the top two drivers in the Chase standings - they have combined to win the last eight races at Martinsville - and this short track showdown could be pivotal in determining this year's champion.
``People would think so, and I would think so,'' Hamlin said of the title implications for Sunday's race. ``I'd think that he'd be one of the guys that I would have to beat.''
Hamlin held the points lead through the first two Chase races, but dropped behind Johnson after Kansas, and has seen the gap widen the last two weeks. Yet he still feels as if he has Johnson right where he wants him with five races remaining in the Chase.
When the series first stopped at Martinsville this season, Hamlin, the preseason pick to be Johnson's top challenger, was off to a disappointing start. He announced that weekend he'd have surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the coming days, and his critics were quick to dismiss him from the pool of championship contenders.
He then used that stirring comeback victory to prove to everyone that he wouldn't go quietly, and he's matched Johnson all season in performance. Both drivers have a series-best six wins apiece.
Johnson has crept ahead the last three weeks, but not enough to cause Hamlin much concern.
``I'm not nervous at all going into Martinsville,'' Hamlin said. ``For me, I would be more nervous if I was (Johnson) going into Martinsville because we won the last two races there. He didn't have the spring race he was hoping for. We are going out there to be on the offense. He's going to try to go out there and win the race as well.
``But for me, he's going to have to beat us to do it. I feel like we're going to be strong when we get there. It's going to take a lot to beat us there.''
Johnson, a six-time Martinsville winner, was ninth in the spring race. But he was admittedly not racing for the win.
``We ran 10th all day in the spring race. We were trying some stuff the first time there, and we are not going back with the same style car,'' he said. ``We went to Little Rock and made some laps, and feel like we have got a good place to start, and go back with what we know and race from there.''
If he's right, it could mean the two main title contenders will be racing each other hard all day Sunday.
Hamlin has so far resisted being too aggressive, but said this weekend could be a repeat of the spring race, when a stop for tires with seven laps left had him ninth on a restart. It got very physical from there, and the race went eight laps past the scheduled distance because of late cautions.
Hamlin bumped and banged his way to the win, and would do it again.
``If that same situation comes up in the Chase, I will probably drive it the same, because your margin of error on a shorter track is a little bit larger than what it is on a mile-and-a-half, 2-mile race track,'' he said. ``You make a mistake on those, and you're in the wall, your car is done and finished.''
Bad races by Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart last weekend at Charlotte have pretty much reduced the Chase field to a three-driver race between Johnson, Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, who is 77 points out.
Hamlin loves how it's shaping up.
``For me, (I'm) more relaxed going out there and saying I'm going to go out there and gain points this week versus, 'Let's just manage a good finish and not lose a certain amount of points,''' Hamlin said. ``It's more relaxed than really I've ever been.''

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