Denny Hamlin won Sunday's Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville and trimmed fifth-place finisher Jimmie Johnson's lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup to six points with four races left in the season.
The closest Chase ever through six races is on a collision course toward next Sunday's AMP Energy Juice 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the most dangerous and unpredictable race in the Chase.
"We're back, baby," Hamlin exulted in the radio as he approached the finish line. "Awesome job."
Hamlin showed his appreciation where it was well-deserved. Crew chief Mike Ford and his over-the-wall crew gained three spots for their driver during their final pit stop, before a restart on Lap 394. Hamlin was third off pit road and fourth overall (because Ken Schrader stayed out) when he took the green flag.
"I love you, Mike. Great job of adjusting the car," Hamlin radioed when the race was over. "Best it's been all day. Awesome job. Pit crew, you did it right there. You got me out. Thank you, guys."
Kevin Harvick, third in the standings, stayed within striking distance with a third-place run at the .526-mile short track, as the top three drivers continued to separate themselves from the rest of the Chase field. Harvick gained 15 points on Johnson and is 62 behind the four-time defending champion.
Hamlin could have a yard sale on grandfather clocks, after winning the distinctive Martinsville trophy for the fourth time and third in a row. The victory was Hamlin's series-best seventh of the season and the 15th of his career.
"Who said it was over?" Hamlin said of the Chase. "I told you it wasn't over."
Mark Martin rallied from a lap down to finish second, followed by Harvick, Kyle Busch and Johnson. Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton and Brad Keselowski completed the top 10.
Harvick, who has had issues on pit road during the Chase, swapped pit crews with teammate Clint Bowyer earlier this week. Bowyer's crew performed flawlessly, and after the race, Harvick offered to kiss his teammate as an expression of gratitude.
"Coming into this race, no one gave us a chance to even run anywhere toward the front," said Harvick, who posted his first top-five finish in 19 starts at Martinsville. "So it's nice to come here, get the finishes we feel like we deserve. We've run well over the last few years -- just hadn't got the finishes to show for it.
"Great day for us. Everybody did a great job on pit road and in the pits, doing everything they had to do to keep the car up front."
Earnhardt briefly gave Junior Nation something to cheer about. Before Earnhardt restarted third on Lap 247, crew chief Chad Knaus radioed to Johnson, "If you hear a great scream and roar [inside] the car, you'll know that Dale took the lead in the race."
Knaus didn't have to be a prophet to predict that. When Earnhardt passed Jeff Gordon for the top spot on Lap 285, the crowd stood en masse and cheered lustily. Earnhardt held the lead for 90 laps, 19 more than he had led previously this year, but his handling tightened up in the late going, dropping him to seventh at the finish.
During pre-race inspection, NASCAR required Johnson's crew to replace the drive shaft cover on the No. 48 Chevrolet, a minor issue in the sanctioning body's view, though the specific reason for the change wasn't stated. If there is a penalty forthcoming, it will be announced during the coming week.
Johnson was unaware of the change.
"I have no idea what you're talking about -- no clue," he said after the race. "Not my job, man."