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, one lap down from the leaders.

Hamlin 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 next round of the playoffs, which is divided into three three-race segments leading into the season finale.

“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 crashed into the wall.

Harvick drove the car to the garage for repairs, and his anger toward Johnson was evident when he headed back onto the track – his finger pointed out his window at Johnson’s crew. He finished in 42nd place.

Harvick is now last among the 16 drivers in the Chase, and four drivers will be eliminated 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.”

The trouble for Harvick was as surprising as the victory for Hamlin.

His rough day Friday in practice meant he had to start 29th, because qualifying was rained out. He spun while trying to pick his way through the pack on the second lap.

But his JGR team didn’t panic, and crew chief Dave Rogers used a gutsy call during the final caution, electing not to pit.

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.

Carl Edwards rallied from a speeding penalty to finish second and give JGR a 1-2 finish.

Kurt Busch, had the lead until the final caution, finished third and was disappointed by the timing of the caution.

“It was the difference maker today,” Busch said. “My Chevy was fast, fast enough to win.”

Ryan Newman finished fourth, and Matt Kenseth was fifth to give JGR three drivers in the top five.