Three top Chase contenders learn valuable lessons at Dover

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Denny Hamlin escaped a tumultuous weekend with an unexpectedly strong finish, the points lead and a load off his mind.

Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch was denied victory by a familiar Dover nemesis.

Jimmie Johnson, whose battle for the win at the Dover spring race was foiled by a pit road speeding penalty that ceded the victory to Busch, overcame mistakes to dominate on Sunday and cue the foreboding mood he's established in winning the last four Sprint Cup championships.

Three prime championship contenders took a little something from Dover. How they apply it the next eight weeks will be paramount.

For Hamlin, a ninth-place finish, especially an uneventful one, was welcomed. The points leader had an average finish of 23rd with two DNFs in his first nine Dover starts, albeit finishing fourth this spring. He became enmeshed in the Clint Bowyer controversy on Friday when he said that Richard Childress Racing had been warned about the nonconformity of their race cars -- which claimed four wins and put all three drivers in the Chase -- well before Richmond, as the team claimed. The next day, RCR's Kevin Harvick, a three-time winner who had led the point standings most of the regular season, rammed, pecked and side-swiped Hamlin during a practice session in his No. 29 Chevrolet. Though ESPN broadcasters breathlessly anticipated Harvick's proximity to Hamlin during the race, as if expecting Harvick to fire a broadside on his way by, there were no incidents and Hamlin concluded his week with a quiet collection of points and maintaining of the points lead. Harvick finished 15th and slipped from second place, 45 points out, to fifth, 65 points behind Hamlin.

"I think a lot of people are just waiting for us to slip up, like we have done in the past," said Hamlin, who had two blown engines in the Chase last year but still finished fifth. "I just don't see that happening this time around. I just think our team is too focused at this point and we're running too well for that to happen. I think it's going to go all the way to the wire. My opinion, I think there's going to be a handful of guys that are going to be racing legitimately for this championship at Homestead."

Among them figure to be Johnson and Busch. The defending series champion and the talented, successful former teammate played out their fight for the same space again on Sunday. This time, Johnson won the day as Busch's ill-handling No. 18 Toyota was not able to hold the lead late.

"With [Johnson's] track record here, with the way he's able to rebound after bad performances -- those guys, they came out here and knew what they had to do and they did that and they produced," Busch said. "We felt like we were right there and capable of running with them, but unfortunately we just missed a couple things."

It wasn't a clinical day for Johnson either, despite his grab for the maximum 195 points after winning and leading a race-high 191 of 400 laps. Perhaps that makes his sixth victory of the season -- and sixth at Dover - all the more impressive. Cognizant of the pit road speeding penalty from this spring, Johnson, during the race, double-checked with crew chief Chad Knaus about how fast he could blast from the first pit stall. He slowed too early on a later stop as he entered pit road. A hung lug nut allowed Busch to beat him off pit road and take the lead in Lap 293. Johnson also spun his tires on a restart, allowing Busch to pull away temporarily.

Johnson insists that he and Knaus were unaware of Hamlin and Harvick's issues on Saturday until Johnson noticed a garage bay packed with their agitated crewmen. He doesn't plan on ruminating on their dispute, but said every moment they spend on it is one gained for him and Knaus.

"I haven't thought much about it," he said. "The reason I don't want to think much about it is I need to worry about my race car and my team. I want to expect the best out of those two race teams and not think, 'Well, they're occupied with each other; they're not going to be as strong.' That would be a mistake on my part. I need to look at the 11 like it's the 11, the 29 like it's the 29, regardless of the feud or whatever could exist in the future. I wouldn't be doing my job then.

"So we've done a very good job over the last four years worrying about ourselves and we've got to maintain that."

Hamlin said after the race his attention was back on himself, and he was focused on a perfectly acceptable day.

"We knew we were going to lose some to that 48, unless they made a mistake or something like that. So I'm really not alarmed by it, not really bothered by it. I think I got to just worry about me," he said. "Regardless of who wins that race, especially the 48, it's not that surprising to me.

"I think the first two tracks actually, me and Jimmie started 10 points apart before the Chase started. Loudon and Dover, if they said head?to?head after those races you're going to be ahead of him in points, I would have taken it. Those first three, four race tracks are really good for him and really, really bad for me. We wanted to get out of here with a decent finish and just be within shouting range. The original goal was to be 80 points back after Kansas.

"Well, that goal has been shifted now to, let's be at least even when we leave Kansas, then we feel like we can beat those guys in the long run, hopefully."