Denny Hamlin claimed his sixth win of the season on Saturday night at Richmond, which gave him the leading spot in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup series that kicks off next week.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was dominant, leading 251 of the race's 400 laps, but his team-mate Kyle Busch mounted a late challenge for victory that kept Hamlin honest in the closing stages of the event.
However while trying to keep up the pressure on Hamlin, Busch ran out of rear tyres and was unable to stay in contention for victory for the last 10 laps, letting his team-mate grab the win that probably slipped through his fingers last weekend at Atlanta due to an engine failure.
Hamlin, who has been in the Chase since his first full season in NASCAR in 2006, will lead the standings for the first time in his career, and more importantly while heading into the championship play-off that starts next week at Loudon.
"I definitely feel like we spent the last two weeks trying to gauge where we are going to be and we brought what we had in the shop and said we are going to try to start our Chase early," said Hamlin. "That way, when we got to Loudon, we would be in the swing of our momentum, not trying to falsely start it and I feel like we have done that.
"We could have had two wins in a row going into the Chase, but last week is in the past and right now I just feel really confident in the team."
Busch did not lead a single lap all night but still came close to sweeping this year's races at Richmond, having won at the 0.75-mile oval in May. He will start the championship battle from fourth place and only 30 points off Hamlin, thanks to his three victories thus far.
"We can't be disappointed in a second tonight," said Busch. "We wanted to win, and we fought hard with Denny, but [we were] racing team-mates clean like that, and not laying a bumper at all, just making sure that the Gibbs cars had a good, solid night, so that we have everything on our side heading into the Chase here next weekend."
Reigning champion Jimmie Johnson, who will be second when the Chase starts, was the only Hendrick Motorsports driver who ran strongly, leading the race for seven laps but finishing a distant third in the end.
The third JGR car of Joey Logano followed Johnson past the chequered flag, running as fast as his team-mates up front in the final portion of the race, while charging his way up to a top-five finish.
Behind him Australian Marcos Ambrose impressed with his best oval result of the year in fifth, beating Richard Childress Racing's Clint Bowyer, who secured the final spot in this year's Chase without much drama, even looking a contender for victory after leading 33 laps, all of them in the first half of the race.
"To get all three cars in the Chase after none of us being in the Chase last year feels good," said Bowyer. "Very excited for RCR's chances and I feel like this is the best shot we've ever had since I've been there to win a championship."
Earnhardt Ganassi's Juan Pablo Montoya also led for three laps after his final pitstop, but then faded to seventh by the end ahead of Richard Petty's AJ Allmendinger, former points leader Kevin Harvick and Roush Fenway's Carl Edwards, who led 95 laps but struggled for balance when it mattered most.
Greg Biffle had a difficult race yet again but still secured his place in the Chase, while Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray, who had a mathematical chance of being in the play-off before the race, were never in position to do so throughout the night.
Two-time DTM champion Mattias Ekstrom had a very respectable oval debut in the Sprint Cup, taking his Red Bull Toyota to a 31st place, finishing four laps down but on the same one as regular race-winner Kasey Kahne, and ahead of Chase contender Greg Biffle and Hendrick's Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Pos Driver Car Laps 1. Denny Hamlin Toyota 400 2. Kyle Busch Toyota 400 3. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 400 4. Joey Logano Toyota 400 5. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 400 6. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 400 7. Juan Pablo Montoya Chevrolet 400 8. AJ Allmendinger Ford 400 9. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 400 10. Carl Edwards Ford 400 11. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 400 12. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 400 13. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 400 14. Matt Kenseth Ford 400 15. Brad Keselowski Dodge 400 16. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 400 17. Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 400 18. Kurt Busch Dodge 400 19. David Reutimann Toyota 398 20. Mark Martin Chevrolet 398 21. Casey Mears Toyota 398 22. Martin Truex Jr Toyota 398 23. David Ragan Ford 398 24. Scott Speed Toyota 398 25. Regan Smith Chevrolet 398 26. Paul Menard Ford 397 27. Elliott Sadler Ford 397 28. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 397 29. Kasey Kahne Ford 396 30. Dave Blaney Chevrolet 396 31. Mattias Ekstrom Toyota 396 32. Greg Biffle Ford 395 33. Landon Cassill Chevrolet 395 34. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 394 35. Travis Kvapil Ford 393 36. Jeff Green Ford 393 37. David Gilliland Ford 393 38. Tony Raines Ford 392 39. Bobby Labonte Chevrolet 324 40. Terry Labonte Toyota 143 41. Kevin Conway Toyota 118 42. Joe Nemechek Toyota 61 43. Jason Leffler Toyota 30