I don't usually take a rooting interest in Cup races, so I was a bit surprised to find myself feeling a bit sorry for
Leading with 60 laps to go, Hamlin got the jump on a restart and slid to the inside. But he hadn't cleared the right, front fender of
It was what it was: a mistake. They happen all the time in NASCAR. But I couldn't help thinking back to January, when I was in Charlotte for NASCAR's preseason media tour. On the night we visited the headquarters of Joe Gibbs Racing, Hamlin had been open and earnest about his desire to take over the team leadership role that had been left vacant when
"If you are going to be the senior driver, you can't act like you are 12 years old," he told the
Lo and behold, nobody stepped up for JGR in 2009 more than Hamlin. He was the only driver in the organization to make the Chase, and he entered it with a full head of steam. He ran off 10 top-10 finishes in the final 12 races of the regular season, including victories at Pocono and Richmond. When the drivers came to New York to meet the press on the eve of the New Hampshire race, Hamlin was the group's master of ceremonies -- poised, confident and, seemingly, raring to go.
He finished second at Loudon the next Sunday, but his 22nd-place finish the next week at Dover -- never one of his favorite tracks -- was enough to scratch him from my list of top contenders. I thought it was clear by Week 2 that the title was going to come down to a dog fight between
It would be a shame if Hamlin's killer mistake at California were to weigh too heavily on him. He fulfilled his goal of being a leader on his team this year, and he did it playing against a team with a stacked deck -- the close relationship between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing has created a six-car team, one that draws on the expertise of a trio of Cup champions, as well as the most experienced driver in the sport.
Far from a flop, 2009 was a season of success for Hamlin. Too bad he won't have a championship to show for it.
It's hideous, I know ... and yet I ... can't ... look ... away.