Joliet, Ill. — Denny Hamlin vowed to make it to the championship round of NASCAR's playoffs, and nothing so far is getting in his way.
Not a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered playing basketball just days before the regular-season finale.
Not a horrible day of practice that resulted in an awful starting position for the opening round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Not a spin Sunday two laps into the race that dropped him to last in the field at Chicagoland Speedway and one lap down from the leaders.
Hamlin stepped up and once again showed his resilience by rallying for a surprise victory in the first race of the 10-race Chase. The win for Joe Gibbs Racing — a heavy favorite to win the championship — earned Hamlin an automatic berth into the second round of the playoffs.
"Go have some fun the next two weeks, that's for sure. Takes some pressure off of us," Hamlin said about his strategy for the next two weeks.
It was a decidedly different mood for reigning champion Kevin Harvick, who vowed four days ago not to be intimidated by JGR's recent muscle and said "we're going to pound them into the ground" during the Chase.
Instead, contact with Jimmie Johnson on a restart caused a tire rub on Harvick's car. He thought the issue had fixed itself, but his left rear tire blew two laps later and he was in the wall.
Harvick drove the car to the garage for repairs, and his anger toward Johnson was evident as headed back on the track — his finger pointed out his window at Johnson's crew — 57 laps off the pace and second-to-last in the field.
Johnson went to Harvick's motorhome after the race to speak to Harvick, but Harvick walked out of the bus and shoved Johnson in the chest with a closed fist.
Harvick was separated from the six-time champion, and Johnson pointed at Harvick as he was restrained from getting at Johnson a second time. Harvick's wife, DeLana, exited a waiting car to walk over to the bickering drivers and Harvick eventually retreated to the backseat of the car as Johnson walked away.
Harvick is last in the 16-driver field, and four drivers will be cut from the Chase in two weeks. Asked what he needs to do to stay in contention, he was blunt: "we've just got to go win one of these next two races."
He felt that Johnson had no regard for his position on the race track during the restart when Harvick was third and Johnson was fourth.
"I just held my ground and he just slammed into my door like I wasn't even there," Harvick said.
Johnson's version was that he got a push from behind from Joey Logano that sent him down to the apron. As he tried to get back on the track, he made contact with Harvick.
"I assumed he would try to find it as my fault. I just simply needed a lane to get back on the racetrack," said Johnson. "He was trying to pin me down and I've got to get back up or else there would be a hell of a mess in Turn 1."
Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers initially said on the team radio he felt Johnson deliberately hit Harvick. After the race, though, the disappointment seemed to be focused on the relationship Stewart-Haas Racing has with Hendrick Motorsports.
The two Chevrolet teams are pseudo teammates, and Johnson and Harvick have a lengthy relationship dating to their early racing days in California.
"As much as we work together and share information, and I feel like we've helped them a lot this year trying to get their cars better, it's just disappointing," Childers said.
The trouble for Harvick was as surprising as the victory for Hamlin.
His rough day Friday in practice meant he had to start 29th in the race when qualifying was rained out. Hamlin said his toughest task was going to be showing patience in the early laps of the race as he tried to move a fast Toyota through traffic, but he spun trying to pick his way toward the front on the second lap.
Now last and a lap down, it seemed he had no shot at the win.
But his JGR team didn't panic, and crew chief Dave Rogers used a gutsy call not to pit during the final caution to give Hamlin a shot at the victory.
Hamlin slid to the bottom of the track to make it three-wide as he jumped from third to first on the restart with five laps remaining. Once past Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch, he easily cruised to JGR's ninth win in the last 12 races.
JGR has won three consecutive Sprint Cup races, and celebrated an Xfinity Series victory on Saturday with Kyle Busch.
Carl Edwards rallied from a speeding penalty to finish second and give JGR and Toyota a 1-2 finish.
Kurt Busch, who was headed for the win until the final caution was called with 10 laps remaining, was third and disappointed at the timing of the caution.
"It was the difference maker today," Kurt Busch said. "My Chevy was fast, fast enough to win."
Ryan Newman, who used consistency to race his way into the championship round last year, was fourth and Kenseth was fifth to give JGR three drivers in the top-five.
Johnson finished 11th and Gordon, second on the final restart, faded to 14th over the final five laps.
Headed into New Hampshire, the four drivers needing to make a big move off the elimination bubble are Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer and Harvick.
Police say a stock car racer taking his ceremonial victory lap died after suffering an apparent medical problem following a race in Vermont.
Devil's Bowl Speedway officials identified the driver as 63-year-old Leon Gonyo of Chazy, New York. They say he had raced stock cars for more than 40 years throughout the Northeast and Canada. Saturday's race marked his fifth victory of the season at the Fair Haven track.
He had just won the speedway's final asphalt NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Modified race of the season Saturday when the medical problem occurred. Authorities say he accelerated into a wall, injuring a staff member's leg.
Gonyo was wearing a helmet and seatbelt when the accident occurred.
Vettel wins Singapore Grand Prix
Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel overcame the shock of coming across a track intruder mid-race and won the Singapore Grand Prix, while runaway championship leader Lewis Hamilton suffered his first retirement of the season, injecting new life into the fight for the Formula One title.
Vettel led from start to finish in a race that was temporarily interrupted by a fan wandering on the track, which prompted the second of two safety-car periods that tactically helped the German notch his third win of the season, by 1.4 seconds over Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo.
Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen was third, as the top three finished in the positions they started at the Marina Bay street circuit.
"I was able to look after my tires and control the pace," said Vettel, whose 42nd career win moved him into outright third on the all-time list. "Overall a perfect weekend, I am very, very happy."
Hamilton suffered an engine-clamp failure that took away boost power, and after several laps of touring around attempting a reset, he retired on lap 33 of 61.
His championship lead over Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, who finished fourth, was trimmed from 53 to 41 points — 252 vs. 211 — with Vettel a further eight points back on 203. There are six races left.
The first safety-car period came on lap 13 following a collision between Williams' Felipe Massa, who was coming out of the pits, and Force India's Nico Hulkenberg. Race stewards blamed Hulkenberg, and he will get a three-place grid penalty at the next race.
The second came in bizarre circumstances when a fan was seen wandering on the track near the Anderson Bridge section. Vettel, who was the first to see him, shouted over the team radio "there is a man on the track!" and the safety car was immediately deployed. The casually dressed man soon climbed over a trackside barrier and off the track and the race resumed.
Vettel joked after the race that he hoped the fan at least got a decent photo.
While this race was likely to be only a temporary aberration to Hamilton's otherwise dominant season, Vettel was not giving up hope of challenging for the championship.
"If we have more weekends like this, yes," Vettel said. "All we have to do is look after ourselves, maximum attack. We still have a small chance. Maybe we can make the impossible possible. We will definitely go for it."
The German made a storming start to the race, leading by three seconds after a brilliant opening lap and extending that to 5.3 seconds after five laps. Ricciardo had whittled that back to 3.6 seconds after 12 laps and the Australian driver looked likely to close onto the back of his former Red Bull teammate, but then the first safety car emerged.
After that caution period, Vettel adopted a different strategy, driving conservatively as the field closed up behind him. He then suddenly burst away to put a two-second gap on Ricciardo in the space of one lap. Again, Ricciardo began to erode the margin, only for another safety car period to negate Red Bull's expected superior speed late in the stint.
"Both safety cars came out at crucial times, but nonetheless his pace was good," Ricciardo said, while quipping that he was so frustrated by the intruding fan ruining his tactical plan that "I was tempted to swerve and clip him."
Hamilton was racing in fourth place when suddenly the car began to lose power.
"I was feeling super optimistic," Hamilton said. "I was on the prime tires and the three cars in front were on the options but I was easily keeping up with them and thinking 'we have a race on our hands'. They were telling me to change all these things and then I was overtaken by two Manors so I knew l was last. When they started to pull away, I knew it was over."
Williams driver Valterri Bottas finished fifth, Red Bull's Daniil Kvyat sixth and Force India's Sergio Perez seventh.