Bill Fleischman: Hamlin trims Johnson's lead in NASCAR's Chase

THANK YOU, Denny Hamlin, for making the Chase interesting.

By winning Sunday at Martinsville, Hamlin trimmed Jimmie Johnson's Chase lead to six points. This is the closest the Chase has been with four races remaining since the 10-race format was introduced in 2004.

Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus know they have a serious challenger in the confident Hamlin and his Mike Ford-led team.

"I like being behind and chasing a guy," Hamlin said. "I do not like playing defense at all."

Johnson, the Chase Master, has played exceptional defense on his way to four consecutive titles. While he is still in charge of the Chase, let's see how he handles the next four races.

Now it's on to Talladega, where anything can happen. The treacherous restrictor-plate racing at 200 mph bunches up the field. One mistake can take out multiple cars.

In nine starts at Talladega, Hamlin has three top-five finishes, including a fourth place in this year's spring race. Johnson has only one win at Talladega in 2006.

"I feel we have a better Talladega package than those guys [Johnson/Knaus] have had," Hamlin said. "We've been very, very strong at superspeedways, especially Talladega."

Don't count out Kevin Harvick in the Chase: He is 62 behind Hamlin. After owner Richard Childress switched crews before the race, assigning Clint Bowyer's squad to Harvick, he finished third at Martinsville after qualifying a distant 36th.

Harvick won this year's spring race at Talladega. He also has two runner-up finishes at the Alabama track.

Tony Stewart knows Talladega as well as any current racer. Stewart, seventh in the Chase, has raced 23 times at the Alabama track since 1999 (one win, six second-place finishes).

"It's a very mentally taxing race," Stewart said yesterday on a conference call. "The hard part is staying focused for 500 miles when you know that you can't make a mistake. It's a 188-lap race, but those last 10 laps are what really matter."

MARTINSVILLE MADNESS

Kyle Busch was angry at Jimmie Johnson. Teammates Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick were upset with each other. And Kurt Busch wrecked Jeff Gordon. Welcome to Martinsville Madness.

All the involved racers are Chasers. Kyle was angry that Johnson, racing in fourth place late in the race, was holding him up.

Burton and Harvick were trying to squeeze into the same space on the track. Referring to the bumping with Harvick, Burton informed crew chief Todd Berrier, "I'm a good teammate, but I will not put up with it."

Harvick told crew chief Gil Martin that Burton "is out of mulligans," saying he thought Burton had done the same thing to him in three previous races.

Later, Burton said: "I have yet to understand what he was upset about. I didn't do anything wrong. There will come a point when he realizes that everybody in the world is not against him."

Wouldn't you like to be at this week's Richard Childress Racing team meeting?

After acknowledging he gave Kurt "reason to be upset," Gordon said, "Kurt Busch doesn't have a very long fuse, so either it was payback or he just got angry really quick and decided to wreck us."

Said Kurt: "He shoved me in there and I shoved him back in Turn 4. I didn't mean to get into him that hard."

Kurt attributed his retaliation to a history of Gordon's aggressive racing against the No. 2 Dodge at Martinsville. Fans love NASCAR's "have at it, boys" policy, but taking out a fellow Chaser is bad form.

NEW SPONSOR FOR GORDON

Jeff Gordon's sponsor for a majority of races next year will be the "Drive to End Hunger," coordinated through the AARP Foundation.

This is thought to be the first major cause-related lengthy team sponsorship in NASCAR history. DuPont, Gordon's sponsor since he launched his NASCAR career in 1993, and Pepsi will be the primary sponsors on races not covered by the anti-hunger campaign.

THIS WEEK'S RACE

AMP Energy Juice 500

Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega, Ala.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: ESPN/WNPV (1440-AM), WDSD (94.7-FM)

Race course: 2.66-mile oval

Race distance: 188 laps/500 miles

Forecast: Sunny, 74 degrees

2009 winner: Jamie McMurray

'09 polesitter: None, because of inclement weather, starting lineup determined by points

Track qualifying record (with restrictor plates): Bill Elliott, 199.388 mph, May 1990

Track facts: Jamie McMurray led the most laps (32), including the final 11, to win last year's Talladega race. . . . Jeff Gordon's six wins at Talladega lead all active drivers. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is runner-up with five W's. The 90 laps Earnhardt led at Martinsville was his best performance of the year.

Wins: Denny Hamlin, 7; Jimmie Johnson, 6; Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, 3 each; Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, 2 each; Ryan Newman, David Reutimann, Juan Pablo Montoya, Clint Bowyer, 1 each.

SPRINT CUP STANDINGS (Through 32 of 36 races)

1. Jimmie Johnson 5998

2. Denny Hamlin 5992

3. Kevin Harvick 5936

4. Kyle Busch 5826

5. Jeff Gordon 5795

6. Carl Edwards 5785

7. Tony Stewart 5762

8. Jeff Burton 5752

9. Kurt Busch 5721

10. Matt Kenseth 5705

11. Greg Biffle 5682

12. Clint Bowyer 5592

THE REMAINING RACES

Sunday, Nov. 7: Lone Star 500, Fort Worth, Texas (3 p.m., ESPN; 2009 winner: Kurt Busch)

Sunday, Nov. 14: Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500, Avondale, Ariz. (3 p.m., ESPN; 2009 winner: Jimmie Johnson)

Sunday, Nov. 21: Ford 400, Homestead, Fla. (1 p.m., ESPN; 209 winner: Denny Hamlin)