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Denny Hamlin: A bad end-game at Phoenix sets up a red-hot championship finish for Homestead

  One pit stop too many for Denny Hamlin...and Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick stay in the NASCAR title game heading into the season finale (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Denny Hamlin had Jimmie Johnson clearly in his sights Sunday afternoon, but couldn't pull the trigger.
   So Johnson, Mr. Four-time NASCAR champion, escaped to fight one more day for Number Five.
   Johnson is only 15 points down with just 400 miles of racing left.
   And Kevin Harvick is right there too, just 46 points down.

   How close is this chase?
   Take the 15 points: If Jimmie Johnson wins Homestead, and Hamlin finishes second and leads a lap, they'd end the season tied.....with Hamlin winning the title based on victories this season, Hamlin with eight to Johnson's seven.
   That's pretty close.
   And the 46: If Harvick wins and leads the most laps, Hamlin could still take the title by finishing at least seventh and also leading a lap.
   Just two examples.
   What Hamlin has to do, basically, is stay ahead of Johnson and Harvick all day next Sunday.
   And Johnson and Harvick, basically, have to keep the pressure on Hamlin.
   Johnson, in a rare moment of mind-games, hacked away at the tour leader: "I know what my mindset is, and I hope the pressure of us being on his heels really works on his mind throughout the course of the week. Him and his crew. 
    "Those guys better be on their toes. 
    "Not only do they have us to worry about, but they have Kevin too.
    "And one race-winner-take-all. It's going to be one hell of a show."
   How did it get this way?
   With less than 20 miles to go in the Phoenix 500K, Hamlin was leading, as he did most of the bright, sunny fall afternoon, and had things well in command, with Johnson and Harvick stuck in the back of the top-10.
   At that point Hamlin was looking at taking a 63-point lead over Johnson to the Homestead, Fla., finale, which would have meant Hamlin had only to log a top-10 finish next Sunday to win the title. And a few minutes early Harvick, after a bad pit stop (a missing lug nut), was mired 19th, and was looking at going to Homestead 130 points behind, and well out of the hunt.
   But – and it's been this kind of chase – Hamlin didn't have enough gas to make it to the end. Or was that he didn't conserve enough gas? Was it that he was burning fuel at such a prodigious rate that he couldn't have made it the final 88 miles – as Johnson and winner Carl Edwards did – no matter how well he conserved?
   Whatever the case, Hamlin had to stop with 14 miles to go, and instead of winning he finished 12th, last among the three chase contenders.
   Hamlin said he was figuring that everyone needed one more pit stop down the stretch.
   Rival crew chief Chad Knaus, however, said he figured Hamlin would have to stop but that Johnson might be able to save enough fuel to make it.
   "We started early enough thinking about fuel, to where I felt comfortable that we had a chance," Johnson said.
   "There are times when a crew chief will tell you with 10 to go 'Save fuel, save fuel, we've got to save fuel!' And there's not a chance."
   Johnson knows that feeling well:  "Both Michigan races last year come to mind.
  "But this time we got a head start on it. I started conserving fuel early. And you can do it over a long period of time."
   And that helped salvage what was a surprisingly mediocre day for Johnson, whose average here the last several years has been phenomenal.
   "We didn't run like we wanted to...we ran well and have nothing to be disappointed in...but a good day right now isn't going to get it done," Johnson said. "You have to have a great day."
   Which Hamlin was having, till those final disappointing moments.
   "So the fuel mileage was there for us, and got us in position to go to Homestead and really race for this -- and put a lot of pressure on Denny," Johnson said with a big smile. "That is the biggest thing working for us right now.
   "I hope he has a hell of a time sleeping all week...and I hope he hears every rattle in that car at Homestead."


  Jimmie Johnson: pouring it on with the mind games (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Know who I blame for Denny

Know who I blame for Denny Hamlin not winning or finishing in the top three at Phoenix? Joe Gibbs. Not Denny. Not Mike Ford. Why? It's simple. TEAM ORDERS. Yeah, those "evil words" that seem to arise from Formula One. Gibbs should have pulled the weakest link of his trio of drivers, Joey Logano aside and told him, in code terms, ride the wall for a few seconds in Turns 3 & 4, then spin the car out without other cars around. That would have brought out a caution sho 'nuff in NASCAR caution-happy world. Hamiln would have had his caution for tires and fuel, Johnson still stuck in the rear and Harvick...........done. It's nuthin' new. Remember, Richard Childress with a one car team with Dale Earnhardt did it a couple times at the last race at Atlanta to pad the points/position with Neil Bonnett in an "open" ride in that famed 31 to clinch the Cup Championship(s).

Denny is faster lately

If it comes down to just pure speed, Denny will win the championship. Denny is driving a Corvette right now and Jimmie is driving a Beetle. But, luck, gas mileage and/or bad decisions could put Jimmie back in the champion's seat. If not, the fall New Hampshire race is probably a huge part of the reason he will not be there.

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