Denny Hamlin has to
Hamlin's late-race pit stop at Phoenix cost him 48 points over Johnson and Harvick. Hamlin said crew chief Mike Ford didn't tell him from the start that he needed to save fuel to make it to the checkered flag. Ford said saving fuel wouldn't have mattered, they couldn't have saved enough, they were a victim of where the cautions fell. Hamlin pointed out that race winner Carl Edwards and Johnson had stopped on the same lap as he did and they made it to the finish.
The extra stop led to Hamlin's frustrations boiling over on the cool down lap and in pit lane. He seemed headed for second behind Edwards if he hadn't made that last stop with 15 laps to go. Hamlin fell to 12th and Johnson's fifth allowed him to gain 18 points. Now, Hamlin has a 15-point edge over Johnson and 46 over Harvick. It could have been 63 on Johnson and 94 on Harvick. Hamlin could have won the title by finishing in the top 10 even if Johnson won at Homestead-Miami in the 10th and final race of the Chase.
Those are a lot of ifs and they mean nothing. Hamlin is grounded in reality and that's working in his favor. He's the points leader after 35 races. That 10-point lead he took into the Chase, earned with a victory in the regular season finale at Richmond, sure looks big now. Hamlin has gained only five more in the nine Chase races, but 15 ahead is certainly better than 15 behind. It delivers confidence. The slim margin also defines what needs to be done. Hamlin's focus is on winning the race.
"Trust me, I'd rather race [at Homestead-Miami] knowing I need to go out there and I need to win the race than knowing I need to finish 15th," Hamlin explained. "That's the mentality I'm going to have. Full-court press will be on. It will be one of those things where you'll probably see me as aggressive as I've been all year."
Hamlin closed out last season by winning at Homestead-Miami. He also won the previous race on a 1.5-mile track in the Chase at Texas. Those are positives that will bury any negative thoughts from Phoenix.
"The important thing is we have a good car -- it's going to be our Texas car," Hamlin said. "So, we know we've got a good piece there."
Johnson is trying for his fifth straight championship. His No. 48 Chevrolet hasn't been as fast at Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota in the Chase's stretch run.
Johnson injected mind games immediately in the aftermath at Phoenix. "I know what my mindset is and I hope the pressure of us being on [Denny Hamlin's] heels really works on his mind throughout the course of the week -- he and his crew," Johnson said. "Those guys better be on their toes.
Not only do they have the 48 to worry about, but they have the 29 [Kevin Harvick] and one race winner take all -- it's going to be one hell of a show."
Here's another reality: There's equal pressure on all three teams. They have to be fast and they can't make mistakes. They have combined for 17 wins in 35 races. They've been battle tested every race.
Hamlin may not win the championship, but he's not going to crack. This has been his breakthrough season with eight of his 16 career Cup victories. What has been the difference? Experience. He's been so successful in his five seasons in Cup, making the Chase and winning at least one race in each, that it's easy to forget how much Hamlin had to learn when he arrived.
"I don't know of anybody who has come from local short-track racing to Nextel [Sprint] Cup in a year and a half," Hamlin told me in a
Hamlin was discovered by Joe Gibbs Racing during a test at Hickory (N.C.) Speedway in late 2003. He'd been hired to set up the late model cars Gibbs was going to buy to start a driver development program with Aric Almirola. Hamlin kept breaking the track record and Gibbs decided they'd better sign him.
Gibbs didn't have a place to run Hamlin in either the Camping World Trucks or Nationwide Series. Hamlin sat until mid-summer, making his debut in Trucks at O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis in 2004. He finished 10th and ran in three more Truck races that season. He also drove in one Nationwide race, finishing eighth at Darlington. Hamlin moved into a full season in Nationwide in 2005, running 35 races.
When Gibbs released Jason Leffler from the No. 11 FedEx car, the team decided to use the remaining races to determine if Hamlin or J.J. Yeley was ready to move into Cup. Hamlin earned the job in the No. 11. He was in Cup full-time at Daytona the next February after only 40 combined Truck and Nationwide races and seven in Cup.
Those Late Model races taught Hamlin how to race on short tracks and Nationwide put him on the restrictor-plate and intermediate tracks for one season.
Hamlin got to Cup in fewer NASCAR national touring races than Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Johnson and Edwards and his ability to adapt so quickly and successfully was remarkable.
Hamlin has been teamed with Ford for his five years in Cup. They may have disagreed at Phoenix, but it will be forgotten at Homestead-Miami. They -- usually -- know how to communicate and they know how to win.
Hamlin also drives for one of NASCAR's premier owners in Gibbs, who knows how to put together winning organizations. The Gibbs' factor will be in play at Homestead-Miami on Sunday, too. He coached the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl victories and also has three Cup championships, two with Stewart and one with Bobby Labonte.
Harvick can't be counted out and Johnson and the No. 48 team are a dynasty like the Yankees of the 1950s. But everything points to Hamlin being crowned the new Sprint Cup champion on Sunday.