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NASCAR: Hamlin's win at Richmond creates valuable momentum

After beginning the season with a Daytona 500 victory, could this year be the year for Denny Hamlin to win the long-sought Sprint Cup championship? Hamlin scored his third victory of the regular season at the Richmond International Raceway on Sat...

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2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers pose for a photo after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 10, 2016 in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images

After beginning the season with a Daytona 500 victory, could this year be the year for Denny Hamlin to win the long-sought Sprint Cup championship?

Hamlin scored his third victory of the regular season at the Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night and his Joe Gibbs Racing team has momentum on its side headed into next weekend's first round of the Chase in Chicago.

The final race of NASCAR's regular season ended with no changes among those chasing the final 16 berths in the Chase. Chris Buescher, who needed to stay in the Top 30 in points to gain admission after his upset victory in Pocono, Pa. this summer, had a close call due to a flat tire. But the rookie hung on to gain admission for his underdog Front Row Motorsports team.

But to win the Chase, Hamlin and the other 15 qualified drivers will have to survive three elimination rounds and then come out ahead in the season finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Hamlin, who now has nine bonus points, nominated himself to be one of those in the mix at Homestead where four drivers will settle the championship, but who else is likely to join him among the final four?

Here is one writer's opinion about the most likely finalists -- Hamlin, defending champ Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex, Jr.

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If there is such a thing as a sentimental favorite, Hamlin qualifies. Hamlin was touted as a future champion until a disastrous finale at Homestead in 2010, when he lost a duel with Jimmie Johnson. Bouncing back from a broken back suffered in a crash at Fontana, Calif., he made it to the final round in the first year of the elimination format in 2014, finishing third.

This year, Hamlin was inspired on the final lap to win the Daytona 500, which has provided a bounce in momentum throughout the season, which included a win at Watkins Glen International. Given that the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has been the most dominant team this year, surely the No. 11 team's poor performance in preparing and pitting Toyotas during last year's Chase will not be repeated. As it is, Hamlin's victory was an eighth straight Top 10 finish.

It appeared Truex Jr. might emerge from Richmond with the most momentum headed into next week's first round of the postseason in Chicago. But after leading the majority of the first 244 laps in the Furniture Row Racing Toyota, Truex was busted for speeding on the pit road and lost an opportunity for a third victory this season.

That error was symptomatic of the Furniture Row team's up-and-down season. Coming into Richmond, Truex Jr. was in position to contend for a victory in 18 of the season's 25 races, but often snafus resulted in a two-win season despite 1,041 laps led.

But having made the Chase's final round last year in a Chevy, this year Furniture Row is affiliated with the juggernaut of the JGR team and uses the same Toyota chassis. So Truex, Jr. is odds on to make another appearance in the elimination finale in Homestead.

Driving for JGR, Kyle Busch was the second driver to get four victories in the regular season. The defending champion, Busch had four victories coming into last year's Chase despite an injury-shortened season. Unlike his previous Chases, Busch weathered some problems with an emotional equilibrium that was unusual compared to his previous postseason campaigns.

After no victories in the first three rounds last year, Busch dominated at Homestead to win the title. There's reason to believe Busch, who has 12 bonus points, will evidence the same even-tempered approach as last year, even if there have been some testy times in the regular season.

Busch's ace in the hole is his Gibbs team, where he has been the dominant driver in the Sprint Cup's most dominant team. Busch may not have won since his impressive Brickyard 400 performance, but on Friday at Richmond he took his eighth Xfinity Series victory of the season, which certainly helps his momentum.

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This season's first four-race winner was Keselowski of Team Penske. At this stage of his career, Keselowski is regarded as a driver who will win multiple championships after scoring the first NASCAR championships for Roger Penske in both the Xfinity series and Sprint Cup. With his 2012 title experience and 12 bonus points entering this year's Chase, Keselowski can be expected to continue the consistent performances that put him second only to Kevin Harvick in the points during the regular season.

In addition to the strength of Penske Fords and a solid teammate in Joey Logano to borrow set-up info from if necessary, Keselowski is a master restrictor plate racer, which will help his bid. Two of his victories came at the Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway. One more round at Talladega remains during the second round of the Chase, a race that arguably presents a bigger hurdle than any other track.

Of these four drivers, the pick here is for Keselowski to win it all for a second time behind the wheel of a Team Penske Ford. Keselowski has become one of the most feisty and opportunistic drivers in the field. While the Gibbs team has been strong across the board, Keselowski has been a regular contender and consistent in the points in the face of the four-car onslaught of Gibbs, plus the Toyota of Truex, Jr. The Roush-Yates Ford engines can be expected to provide plenty of power to compete with the Toyotas.

To win the title, Keselowski will likely have to win at Homestead for the first time, but that's not a major hurdle for a driver of his talent and a team with the depth of Penske.

The back-up picks for the final round include two former champions, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick, one near-miss champion, Carl Edwards, and Logano.

Harvick has been the most consistent driver in the Sprint Cup since 2014, when he clinched his first title by winning at Homestead. Currently first in the points by a wide margin, Harvick is in position to advance to the final four in either points or with victories.

Harvick has been a winner at each of the Chase tracks except Texas, but after the meltdown in the pits by his Stewart-Haas Racing crew at the Darlington Raceway, a question mark remains. SHR has replaced the front tire changer and tire carrier after a switch with the crew of teammate Danica Patrick. But Harvick now has the devilish problem of getting caught speeding at Richmond on Saturday night after his complaints about the pit crew in Darlington. Those bitter complaints were made on TV shortly after the end of the race, so one has to wonder about the team chemistry. As it is, his two victories give him six bonus points.

Edwards came as close to the title as possible without winning it in 2011, when he tied Tony Stewart in the points and lost the title on the tie-breaker of most victories. Edwards might have scored a third victory in his JGR Toyota had he been more aggressive in Phoenix on the last lap, but then manned up by banging Busch out of the way to win at Richmond. If Edwards maintains his aggression and his characteristic smoothness, he could well make it to the final round.

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Kenseth appeared to have momentum on his side in last year's Chase when leading late in the race at Kansas. But when he was rammed out of the lead by Logano, the season fell apart. Kenseth dumped Logano in Martinsville, Va., after once again getting bumped out of contention by a Penske Ford, this one belonging to Keselowski.

This year, Kenseth, a two-time winner, appears to have recovered better from that controversial Kansas/Martinsville series of events than Logano. Kenseth is almost guaranteed to get the most out of his cars in any given race. Since JGR team has been the most dominant team throughout the season, perhaps Kenseth will be the one to advance to the finals.

For his part, Logano has been consistent in the points this year in addition to his one dominant victory in Michigan after last year's six-win season. It appears that Logano has been intimidated into being less reckless with his enormous talent. Calculated moves and consistency may work for Logano this year to get to the final four once again after making it in the first year of the elimination format in 2014.

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By Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange

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