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Hamlin, Larson and Truex seem to be driving for momentum

Hamlin, Larson and Truex seem to be driving for momentum
Denny Hamlin leads Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. during the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 10. (Chet Strange / Associated Press)

How valuable momentum is to start the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is a matter of debate. The format of three three-race elimination rounds that whittles 16 qualifiers to four for the final leaves little room for error regardless of form.

Indisputable at the moment is who possesses momentum.

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If momentum is your guide to picking favorites for Sprint Cup's 10-race playoff, look no further than the top three in the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday: winner Denny Hamlin, second-place Kyle Larson and third-place Martin Truex Jr.

Truex won six days earlier at Darlington before leading a race-high 193 laps Saturday. He dominated the first half of the race and led as late as Lap 321 of 407 laps. But, with a car better-suited for long runs, the seven restarts caused by a rash of accidents over the last 86 laps did not suit him.

Larson enters the Chase on the heels of a win at Michigan (his first victory), third at Darlington and runner-up at RIR. With fresher tires than Hamlin at the end, he would've benefited from one more restart.

Hamlin might be hottest of all, because his string of top 10s is now eight races. In the last five races he has wins at Watkins Glenn and Richmond, and placed third at Bristol and fourth at Darlington.

Saturday's win at his home track was the most satisfying of all.

"Yeah, that's what's so special about it [is] you get to do it home," said Hamlin, who won at Richmond for the third time, and the first in six years. "I see all the extra Denny Hamlin shirts and hats and everything, and [it] fires me up every time I get here."

Hamlin indicated he would've liked to have made a late pit stop as the race was extended from a scheduled 400 laps to 407 by the track-record 16 cautions. Crew chief Mike Wheeler vetoed that and Hamlin held off hard-charging Larson by about six tenths of a second.

"I didn't think staying out was the right thing to do, but great call there," Hamlin said.

While the race did not lack for contact, it did not produce any of the drama typical of the one that finalizes the Chase field. A dozen drivers already qualified for the Chase and two others, Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon, were in virtually invulnerable positions to qualify at the drop of the green flag.

Realistically, only the final two spots were on the line.

With a win in hand, Chris Buescher only needed not to lose his 11-point lead on David Ragan for 30th in the Cup standings — the cutoff point for a race winner to advance to the Chase. Buescher finished 24th and Ragan, who wrecked late, finished 34th to settle the issue.

Going into Richmond, Jamie McMurray had a 22-point lead on Ryan Newman for the last spot into the Chase on points. McMurray finished seventh.

Newman's remote chances of making the Chase ended late in the race, when Tony Stewart wrecked him intentionally because he said Newman had run into him three times in the race. In a television interview after the incident, Newman bitterly criticized his former boss at Stewart-Haas Racing.

"I guess he thought he was in a sprint car again," Newman said. "Didn't want to control his anger. Just disappointing that you have somebody old like that that should be retired the way he drives. It's just ridiculous. I don't think there was any reason other than him just being bipolar and having anger issues."

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Stewart, who rallied from well behind in the Chase in 2011 to overtake Carl Edwards and win his third Cup title, shook off Newman's blast with a couple of quips and addressed the topic of momentum.

"What you do up to the start of the Chase really doesn't mean anything, obviously — 2011 is proof of that," Stewart said. "All I care about now is getting ready for [the first Chase race in] Chicago and running through Sunday in Chicago."

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