Hamlin’s truly chasing title now

Intensity ramps up. Tension mounts. Second-guessing begins.

But not for Denny Hamlin.

The driver known to be hard on himself, to dissect past racing moments and to painfully relive the setbacks from time to time has been vanquished to the past. Nowadays a confident, renewed — and on-fire — version of Hamlin strides into the track. And into Victory Lane.

Taking the checkered flag for the fourth time this season with a late rally Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, is Hamlin making a championship-sized statement to the competition?

“I don’t say anything — wins are all that matter,” he said shortly after his win.

He’s right.

Perhaps NASCAR has a new closer. Hamlin not only masterfully steals the win in the final laps these days, but his back-to-back victories vault him into the top spot when the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins following next Saturday night’s race at Richmond. Hamlin can now do no worse than end up in a mathematical tie for the points lead when the standings reset by virtue of his four wins.

He’s stepping up and taking command as those around him falter. Three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart finished 22nd at Atlanta — his best finish in three races and his fourth straight finish of 19th or worse. Jimmie Johnson crashed for his second unfinished race in the last three outings.

The men trying to break into the field and battle him for the title are faring even worse. Ryan Newman crashed for the second consecutive race. Carl Edwards had an engine failure. Jeff Gordon ran well and was second Sunday, but that doesn’t put him in the Chase yet. And Kyle Busch keeps trying to make a move, but falling off late.

None of these wild-card contenders carries the kind of momentum that makes Hamlin take note, and they will battle for one last wild-card berth Saturday night as Kasey Kahne seems to have the first of the two slots in hand with his two victories.

Instead, it is Hamlin grabbing the attention of the competition. Sunday night his team gambled on an alternate pit strategy that was foiled by a caution. Then it took command when Jamie McMurray crashed on the frontstretch to set up the final green-white-checker finish. The leaders pitted as everyone was close on fuel and Hamlin’s team put him in front after the field entered pit road with Martin Truex Jr. in the lead. Throughout the night he’d been racing hard. He led often. He made up ground with fresh tires after returning to the track well behind the leader on those offset pit stops.

But he just couldn’t quite make the pass on those runs late in the race. He’d already led six times for 99 laps but this race was easily in the hands of Truex, who had led 40 laps and was more than two seconds ahead of  Gordon when the caution came out. Then Hamlin, who was running third, took charge when his team got him off pit road ahead of the field. He then held off the charging Gordon to take his second consecutive win.

And to take command of the title race.

He also helped his teammate, as he kept Gordon from getting win No. 2 and moving past Busch into the final wild-card slot.

“We realize, we’ve been doing this a long time, this is not easy, so you have to really appreciate the wins and enjoy them, and I think it lays a great foundation for the Chase, and I think Denny knew it, too, when he held off Jeff Gordon, he knew that gave Kyle a chance next week to clinch that Chase spot,” team president J.D. Gibbs said.

While Hamlin says that he needs a teammate in the Chase, the fact is that he might just enter it with yet another win instead. Perhaps making matters even worse for his fellow title contenders, the pre-Chase segment of the season closes out at Richmond, a track where Hamlin consistently runs well and has two wins.

Will he continue to steamroll his way into the title-determining segment there?

And how critical is this momentum — and the lead — once the Chase starts? While Hamlin celebrates it, drivers like Brad Keselowski, who finished third Sunday, work to downplay it.

“I know the three wins we have, they just make you feel good and give you something to beat your chest about, but at the end of the day you still have to perform in the Chase and be consistent,” Keselowski said after chasing Hamlin on Sunday. “He’s in great standing . . . but he’s going to have to fight just like everybody else in the Chase, and so are we.”

Hamlin’s proven capable of doing just that.

Throughout the season, he’s enjoyed some stellar runs intermixed with setbacks (such as the two accidents, engine failure and suspension issue that sidelined him in races).

Nowadays, he’s enjoying more of the first.

Suddenly, is looking like a title favorite.

And he knows it.

Can he close the deal this time? Hamlin came close before, but he dismisses the idea that this run might be haunted by the past. Dejected after finishing as runnerup in the Chase in 2010, he then struggled through the 2011 season. Hamlin no longer seems to carry the scars of his close call, though.

These days, he’s only looking forward.

“In 2010 it was a pressure situation,” he said. “You take those experiences and you being experienced is something that you can never take away, and it never hurts you. . . . I did an interview at the beginning of the year last year, and I said, ‘Just put me back in that same situation any years down the road, and I promise I’ll win the championship when we leave Homestead.’

“All I can hope is that I get that opportunity again, and if I do, I’m going to live in the moment, and I’m going to focus everything I can do to win that race instead of worrying about the outcome. I’m going to have a lot more fun and enjoy it. This year the race at Homestead is on my birthday, so I can’t think of a better present.”