The last time Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin visited Phoenix International Raceway, he was only two races away from accomplishing what no other driver had been able to achieve since NASCAR brought into play the Car of Tomorrow for full time use in 2008. Hamlin came so close to winning his first championship, and putting an end to Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson’s four year championship reign.
[media-credit name=”Patrick McBride” align=”alignright” width=”240″][/media-credit]Instead after leaving Phoenix, gone was the look of confidence the NASCAR Sprint Cup point’s leader displayed after his win in the AAA Texas 500 on Nov. 7. It was replaced with a look of repugnance, after watching his dominating performance take a backseat to Johnson’s late-race fuel strategy payoff. Hamlin, who led a race high 190 laps while Johnson failed to lead a lap and collect the extra five bonus points, quickly found himself having to protect a small lead against the four-time champion heading into the final race at Homestead.
The day began to unfold for Hamlin on lap 233, when Robby Gordon spun which brought out the caution and the leaders headed to pit road. Kyle Busch beat Hamlin off pit road to grab the lead with 87 laps left in the race, and Johnson passed Kevin Harvick in the pits to take over fourth place. Mike Ford told Hamlin over the radio they’re about 12-13 laps short on fuel, and that’s when Johnsons crew chief Chad Knaus, began scheming with his driver to save fuel in hopes of cutting into Hamlin’s point lead. Knaus was listening to the radio chatter when he overheard Ford telling Hamlin he was not going to make it to the end.
Knaus’s gamble paid off when Johnson started conserving fuel with 15 laps left, and the team was able to finish the race in fifth, seven positions ahead of Hamlin. More importantly Johnson was able to shave an additional 43 points with the gamble and put himself within 15 points instead of 58, had Hamlin also gambled and finished the race in second without running out of fuel.
On lap 288 Hamlin told his crew chief, “Don’t let them short-pit us, Mike,” and two laps later Hamlin also begins saving fuel knowing that Ford had already told him earlier they would be 12-13 laps short. Finally with 14 laps left in the race, Ford called Hamlin in for two tires and fuel which took him 7.6 seconds and put him a lap back. It wasn’t until lap 301 when Hamlin would pass Edwards and get his lap back, and with five laps left he was still outside the top-10 in 15th place, while Johnson was in serious conservation mode running in sixth.
By the time the checkered was thrown, Hamlin crossed the line in 12th; Johnson picked up a spot and finished fifth with Harvick right behind in sixth. Johnson as we know went on to win his fifth championship, while Hamlin would spend the off-season wondering how he could let the championship slip away so easily. Hamlin talked about what his off-season was like when he said that, “I think just getting in the offseason — getting away from racing for a little while definitely helps a lot.” Hamlin also added that, “When you look back at it and I look back at it; it was a heck of a career year for myself. That’s something that can’t be overlooked because it’s the best I’ve ever performed throughout my career — my young career.”
The loss not only affected his fans, but it also affected the mindset of Hamlin in a positive way when he spoke about the upcoming season by saying, “Obviously, my passion for one thing. You look at the video of me after the race and you wouldn’t think we’d still be leading the points, but it was just the passion because I knew that I let a big opportunity slip away from us in the sense of we could’ve gone to Homestead and just kind of rode around and collected a championship.”
“For me, it was just my passion. It’s always been in me — the competitiveness has always been in me and it will never change.” Hamlin also added that, “I’ve only been around this team, me and this team, for five year. We’ve accomplished a lot of things that a lot of guys never will. So, for me, I just look forward and try and figure out how we can progress and get to number one.”
Hamlin will begin Sunday’s race from the 12th spot in the field, and once again will have to work his way to the front. Fuel along with tires will once again be an issue, unlike the race at Daytona last Sunday when the teams were able to come in for fuel only on many of the pit stops. If Ford and Hamlin play their strategy right, redemption could come in a very big way, even though the ghosts of what could have been might be lurking around.