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Denny Hamlin makes a little NASCAR history, just not quite the right way

   It was another great day for racing.....but what to make of all those mistakes by the title contenders? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern




    Denny Hamlin came here to make some history....and he did. Just not quite the way he'd hoped.
    And maybe that gas mileage snafu at Phoenix was indeed the turning point for him – instead of taking a solid lead into the stock car tour's final race,   Hamlin arrived in town for the NASCAR season finale still holding the points lead but only narrowly over Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.
    And Denny Hamlin left town dejected at losing the championship, on a ragged afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway. the first man in nearly 20 years to come into they year's final race with the points lead and leave without the trophy.

First, less than 40 miles into the 400, he banged door-to-door with Greg Biffle, damaged his car slightly, lost any edge in speed he might have had.
    The day never really got any better for him, and he finished a painful 14th, losing the title by 39 points.
    Meanwhile Jimmie Johnson was steadily motoring through the three-hour event, slowly at first, and with some unexpected pit crew problems, but fast at the end, finishing second.
    So it was a down-and-despondent Hamlin after the race when talking about his day:
    "It was a fight.....maybe contribute it to bad qualifying," Hamlin, who started 37th, to Johnson's sixth Friday. "But our car was really fast at the beginning of the race, I mean just unbelievably fast. I knew we had a car that could contend for a win....."
    And then, while trying to pass Biffle, Hamlin wound up on the inside of a three-wide off the corner, but not noticing the outside car that was leaving Biffle no room to move up the track.
   Hamlin went spinning down to the infield grass, relatively undamaged but still not in good shape.
   "It tore up the front, and knocked the toe out, and the car did not drive as well for the rest of the day," Hamlin said.
   At the moment Hamlin complained to his crew that Biffle had crowded him.
   Afterwards, however, Hamlin said it was just racing: "I was on the inside of him, and somebody went three-wide on him right at the last minute, and he came down and got into our right front.
    "Nobody's fault at all. Just one of those things where it was not enough space for three cars.
    "We just tried to patch it, and work on it the best we could. But it just wasn't the car it was at the beginning."
    It was clearly a crushing loss, a painful end to what was such a brilliant season for Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford, who won a tour-best eight races, and who appeared to have measured up Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus for a championship knockout – right up till those final miles at Phoenix, where they let a runaway victory get away from them and reopened the door for Johnson and Knaus.
     "Coming this close is tough...especially thinking about all the small things that could have changed the outcome of this chase in one lap," Hamlin said.
     "But Jimmie's team has been strong over the last few years. They really have no weak spots.
    "But there are several parts of our team we can improve on. I know I need to get better in qualifying; I said that last year at this time.
    "There are lots of things I could do to be better, and lots of things we can do as a team to be better."
    Phoenix?  "We were just short on the fuel mileage piece; that's just one of the things on the list that we have got to work on," Hamlin said.
   "Phoenix last weekend – we should have pitted when Kevin and Joey Logano pitted (to get enough gas to finish with the extra stop). Probably that was the turning point."    
   Ironically Hamlin's own teammate, Kyle Busch, may have provided the coup de grace to those title hopes, when Busch tried a 'slide job' pass on Kevin Harvick on lap 244 of the 267, during a round of green flag stops....just after Hamlin had stopped. That yellow put Hamlin back in a hole, and he was never back in the game.
     "I thought it was over when Kyle wrecked, for sure," Hamlin conceded. "That trapped us a lap down.
    "Kevin and Jimmie were actually just a straightaway ahead, but what was a straightaway (deficit) turned into 15 spots when that caution flew, and that really hurt us quite a bit."
    Busch and Harvick exchanged unpleasantries.
    "It's just a guy that doesn't have his head on straight apparently today," Busch said of Harvick, after the savage nose-first crash that left Busch's car in flames. 
    "I thought everything was good (with Harvick) --  I talked to him in the prerace drivers' meeting...but he's such a two-faced guy it just doesn't matter."
   "He raced me like a clown all day," Harvick said. "Three-wide...on the back bumper...running into me...and I just had enough."
     To which Hamlin joked "sounds like the way your teammates (Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer) raced me all day."
     To which Harvick, with a laugh, retorted "I just parked yours."

    That was about the only moment of levity post-race for Hamlin and Harvick.
    Hamlin's down-and-up-and-down-again day was hard to track.
   "When we got in that incident (with Biffle early), you think 'Okay, it's over,'" Hamlin said. "Then you run a couple of laps and it's like 'It's not terrible, and maybe we can come back from it.
     "Then we had a good pit stop that put us in front of Jimmie, and actually outran them that one run. But that was the absolute best the car could be, for the conditions of the car, having been knocked around.
    "Then we had less than stellar pit stop that put us back about four spots behind him (Johnson), and he never looked back."

   After the pressure and nervousness and anxiety of the last few weeks, Hamlin conceded he was – to a point – relieved that the game was finally over. "Yeah, a little bit.
    "But I'll be honest with you -- I was not nervous at any point, until about an hour before the race. That's really when it hit me.
     "Yeah, relieved that it is over."
     And Hamlin says he won't have to wait a few days to look at the big picture and enjoy the fact that this has been his best season ever.
     "I see it now. I know right now that we have a lot to be proud of as a team.
     "I can take the load off a little because of that -- we had a solid year, we had a really good car all year...our best year ever.
      "I know that there's. But also that I've got to get better in a lot of areas."


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