The Inside Line: Hamlin turning into the Chase favorite

With the Chase for the Sprint Cup right around the corner, Denny Hamlin is making a strong statement that he is the one to beat for the championship.

Hamlin's win Sunday night at Atlanta not only secured him a spot in the 12- driver Chase field but clinched him at least a tie for the first seed as well. With one race remaining in the regular season -- at Richmond -- Hamlin has the most victories with four. Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart have three wins each.

After winning the Aug. 25 night race at Bristol and then at Atlanta, Hamlin has become the hottest driver in the series. He was virtually assured of making the Chase before Bristol. Hamlin ranked 10th in points following the Aug. 19 event at Michigan, but his wins in the spring races at Phoenix and Kansas were good enough for him to at least secure a wild card position. He is now up to seventh in points.

Hamlin's return to championship form has been a work in progress. In 2010, he won a series-high eight races and finished a career-best second in points. Hamlin went into the season finale at Homestead that year with a 15-point lead over Jimmie Johnson, but Johnson claimed his record-extending fifth straight Sprint Cup championship by a 39-point margin of victory.

Last year, Hamlin struggled throughout the season, scoring only one win and barely making the Chase by earning the final wild card position. He ended the season ninth in points.

His slump last season prompted Joe Gibbs Racing to make a crew chief change with the No. 11 team. Mike Ford, who had served as Hamlin's crew chief since he started competing in the series full-time in 2006, was out the door, and Darian Grubb moved in soon.

Grubb lost his job at Stewart-Haas Racing just days after Tony Stewart won the 2011 series championship. Stewart went on a tear during the Chase, winning five of the 10 races. Grubb didn't lose his winning touch, as he and Hamlin won at Phoenix (March 4) in just their second race together.

Hamlin has qualified for the Chase in each of his seven seasons in Sprint Cup.

"This has been something in the works for a very long time, and obviously I have a lot wins in my career because of two very important guys - one is Darian, and the other is Mike Ford," Hamlin said. "Mike put together 80 percent of a championship winning team, and Darian has just filled that gap and put the rest of the pieces of the puzzle together. The foundation has been laid."

Grubb has an opportunity to win back-to-back championships with two different drivers.

"It would be extremely cool," he said.

With Steve Addington serving as his crew chief, Stewart will be in this year's Chase. He is currently 10th in points but is guaranteed at least a wild card spot. Unlike Hamlin, Stewart has been heading in the wrong direction, finishing no better than 19th in the past four races.

Hamlin had been in a bit of a slump as well. Last month, he finished 29th at Pocono and then 34th at Watkins Glen before placing 11th at Michigan.

"We had a pretty good car at Pocono and got in a wreck, a blown engine at Watkins Glen, a wreck and a fire at Michigan, just on and on, things that have kept us from showing what we're capable of," he said. "But I knew these three weeks with Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond was going to be our opportunity to win significant races."

Hamlin's consecutive wins at Bristol and Atlanta have his team fired up heading into Saturday's race at Richmond. Hamlin is certainly looking forward to his return to the three-quarter-mile Richmond track, which is located just miles away from his hometown of Chesterfield, Va.

"I look at Richmond as a race we're going to go win," said Hamlin, who won the fall event there in 2009 and '10. "That's my track. It's my best track arguably, and I just think we have a lot of momentum now, and for what it's worth, I will try to take advantage of it."

With Hamlin now in the Chase, his team is more than eager to start the 10-race battle for the championship. They're already prepared for it.

"Our car schedule is already done all the way through Homestead," Grubb said. "We're already preparing the cars for Talladega and those things. The work never stops. You're working six, seven weeks ahead all the time to make sure things are ready, and the guys at the shop are doing a great job preparing ahead of time, so when we go to the racetrack and unload, we're fast."

The Chase begins Sept. 16 at Chicagoland and then moves on to New Hampshire, Dover, Talladega, Charlotte, Kansas, Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix before it wraps up Nov. 18 at Homestead.