— TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Denny Hamlin refused to worry about earning a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, even as driver after driver won a race to theoretically claim one of the 16 berths.
Under the new "win and you're in" format, the pressure is on for drivers to reach Victory Lane during the regular season. Not since 2003 have 16 drivers won during the first 26 races, but the Sprint Cup Series is now on pace to hit that mark again — meaning one win might not be enough to guarantee a spot in the Chase.
Hamlin became the eighth different winner this season with his Sunday victory at Talladega Superspeedway. Through 10 races, only Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano have multiple wins, and former series champions Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart are still seeking their first victories.
"I wasn't ever worried, but you get a little bit more panicked when it's, 'Win a race and you're in the Chase,'" Hamlin said. "You see all these guys logging wins, wins, wins, and the next thing you know they're running out of Chase spots. Now we can be a little bit more relaxed."
The victory was the first points win of Hamlin's career at a restrictor-plate track. He'd won four exhibition races at Daytona, but never when it counted.
He earned Sunday's win by beating Harvick in a drag race after a restart with two laps to go, and was still out front when NASCAR froze the field on the last lap because of debris on the track.
"We really just want to win races, regardless of the implications of what this means for the Chase," Hamlin said. "It feels so good to be back in Victory Lane in a points paying event. It feels great. I've got tons of exhibition wins on superspeedways, but none with points. I like it."