RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Denny Hamlin vowed to step up this season and make a serious run at the championship.
With teammate Kyle Busch out of his way, the path is a lot clearer.
Hamlin scored his breakthrough victory at home track Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night to take a burst of momentum into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Busch, his teammate, was shut out of the title hunt because his fifth-place finish wasn't enough to get him into the 12-driver field.
Although it was a bittersweet night for Joe Gibbs Racing, Hamlin felt as if he'd just won the Daytona 500.
"I know how special that race is to everyone," he said of NASCAR's biggest race of the year. "But this one in particular, to me, especially after all the heartbreak ... it's by far the biggest win of my career and hopefully goes a long way for this race team over the next 10 weeks."
He'll take the momentum into New Hampshire next weekend, when the 10-race Chase begins.
Busch, who tied with Mark Martin this season with a series-best four victories, thought he'd be a part of the field. But he was shut out after an inconsistent season.
"We did all we can do. We gave a valiant effort and it was a good night," Busch said. "We will live to see another day. We'll go on for the rest of the year."
The final spot went instead to Brian Vickers, who knocked both Busch and Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth out of contention with a career-best seventh-place run. He finished eight points ahead of Busch in the tightest Chase buildup since its 2004 inception.
The one-time teammates feuded last month at Michigan, but raced each other cleanly the last two weeks as they jockeyed for the final Chase berth. There was no ill-will between them after Vickers grabbed the last spot in a frantic finish. Busch extended a hand to shake and said, "Good job," as Vickers entered the post-race news conference.
"It's no secret that him and I don't always see eye-to-eye and don't always get along," Vickers said. "But I have to say the past two weeks, we raced really hard, but very clean. Maybe we'll be fine and maybe we won't. But we have been fine the past couple of weeks."
Hamlin, with the momentum of his Richmond win, believes he's the favorite to win the Sprint Cup title. He twice before led the most laps at Richmond, where he sat in the stands as a child rooting on boyhood idol Bill Elliott, only to have late pitfalls sabotage his shot at victory.
Now he's got his Richmond win, his second of the season, and a ton of confidence headed into the Chase.
"They better watch us," he vowed. "I am telling you, this team is dangerous."
Mark Martin, who at 50 is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career, leads the Chase field as the top seed and is followed by Tony Stewart and three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.
Hamlin starts the Chase in fourth and is followed by Kasey Kahne, three-time series champion Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Brian Vickers, who finished a career-best seventh Saturday night to grab the final qualifying spot.
Carl Edwards will start the Chase in ninth and is followed by Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya and Greg Biffle.
Busch and Matt Kenseth, who had made the Chase in each of its first five seasons, were the two drivers shut out of the field.
It made for a compelling night of racing, where 11 drivers vied for the final eight available spots in NASCAR's title-deciding Chase.
On the bubble was Kenseth, the Daytona 500 winner, who started the race in the 12th and final qualifying spot. Vickers, charging hard the past 11 races, and Busch were right on his bumper.
But Kenseth struggled from the drop of the green flag and quickly fell out of contention. Busch and Vickers swapped the final spot multiple times over the 400 laps, setting up a final 14-lap sprint to the finish.
Busch used a flawless final pit stop to beat Vickers off of pit road, but he restarted the race sixth and could only gain one spot on the track. He finished fifth and said he'll focus now on helping Hamlin win a championship.
"I'll do my best to help Denny out and bring Joe Gibbs Racing a championship," Busch said. "I think Denny has got a lot going forward, especially winning here. He's going to have a big momentum boost next week."
Vickers, who got upstart Red Bull Racing into its first Chase, promised a long night of celebrating.
"Right now, my focus is to move on from the last 10 weeks. It's been a stressful period of my life, but just proud of the effort," he said. "I'm genuinely going to party hard tonight, I'm not kidding. Next week, the focus is to move on and win the championship."
Kenseth, winner of the first two races this season, was shut out of the Chase for the first time since it started in 2004.
"Third race of the year, Las Vegas, we finished last and it's been downhill from there," Kenseth said. "The way we're running right now, even if we made it, we wouldn't have a shot at the championship."