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Hamlin avoids Talladega disaster

Denny Hamlin wanted only to leave Talladega Superspeedway with Jimmie Johnson still in his sights in the tense race for the NASCAR championship.

Mission accomplished after a furious final push Sunday gave Hamlin a ninth-place finish — just two spots behind the four-time defending series champion — and left him just 14 points out of the lead with three races remaining in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

All in all it was a pretty solid result.

Yet the driver seemed disheartened as he dissected his day at the one track that posed the most risk in this thrilling three-man race for the title.

"It wasn't very fun," he lamented.

No, it wasn't. But considering it could have been a disastrous day — bad enough to end his championship chances on the spot — he should have been ecstatic.

See, Hamlin gambled and went with the popular practice of racing at the back of the pack in an effort to avoid any unnecessary danger. The strategy has worked wonders at Daytona and Talladega over the years, where drivers take a lazy Sunday drive before turning on the jets for a final mad dash to the finish.

Because of his precarious points position — Hamlin started the day just six behind Johnson — he couldn't risk a catastrophic crash and had to play it safe early in the race.

The plan backfired when a round of green-flag pit stops caused Hamlin to fall too far back from the pack. He was out of the draft, and dropping like a rock with zero power to stop his slide.

Hamlin was 15 seconds behind the leaders. Then 20. Then 30. Then nearly 40 and his rearview mirror showing the field hurtling toward him.

Strategies were discussed, including Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch's offer to drop back and rescue Hamlin, but the team decided against the move. Michael Waltrip, a fellow Toyota driver, had a brief window to go get Hamlin, but that too didn't materialize.

"In a way, you're kind of thinking 'Well, we'll get the draft back,'" team president J.D. Gibbs said. "And then when we kind of realized, 'You aren't getting it,' it was almost too late to send those guys back, because then they could go a lap down, too."

Hamlin did fall a lap down, and the only help he could get was a promise from fellow Toyota driver David Reutimann to make a hole for Hamlin to slide into as the pack closed in on his stranded car. It worked, Hamlin fell into line, then had to ride around and hope cautions fell his way and he could get back on the lead lap.

When he did, it was game on.

He hooked up with Busch and sliced his way through traffic, even leading four laps. But time at the front can be short-lived at Talladega, and when Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus told his driver to get moving with 15 laps to go, Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon barreled to the lead.

Hamlin and Busch got shuffled back into traffic, and were stuck in the pack when caution was called for debris with eight laps to go. Hamlin was listed in 18th on the restart with four laps remaining, and had to furiously slide his way through traffic to save his finish.

He had Johnson passed and Mark Martin on his bumper when Martin, one of Johnson's teammates at Hendrick Motorsports, suddenly stopped pushing. It gave Johnson the chance to pass him back right before the race-ending caution froze the field.

"I didn't get to race as hard as I would like to at times, and thought I was in a good position there. I was actually in a great position with two to go," Hamlin said. "I had (Martin) pushing me, but as soon as we passed (Johnson), he stopped pushing. That's teamwork. That's what I would expect of a teammate.

"We were in a bad spot. We weren't around our teammates when it counted right there at the end."

So Hamlin left Alabama with a laundry list of things that could have been done differently.

But when it was all said and done, he came out of it in good shape and that's all he ever wanted in the first place.

"I asked for nobody to really get killed here (in the standings) and to let us settle it on the race track where our cars and our teams can make a difference and us drivers can make a difference," he said. "That's what we got."

Indeed, he now moves to Texas, where he won in April to send a statement to the field. He was coming off knee surgery two weeks earlier, and followed the operation with a miserable performance at Phoenix that had everyone doubting his title chances. He responded with the Texas win the very next week, silencing his critics.

But the circumstances are a whole lot different in the return trip.

There's no more room for error in this Chase, not when the unflappable Johnson is holding steady at the top and third-place Kevin Harvick is breathing down both of their necks.

Hamlin probably can think of a dozen things he wishes he'd done differently through the first seven Chase races. And maybe that's what weighed on him Sunday when he failed to see the silver lining in rallying to a top-10 finish.

If he's really going to run down Johnson and win his first title, Hamlin needs to let it go and focus on what's ahead.

In the big picture, his performance Sunday wasn't good enough to win the championship. It was just enough to keep him in contention, and he'll have to be better the final three weeks.

A huge part of that will come with attitude, and learning to accept the good with the bad.

And Sunday, he may learn later this month, was pretty darn good.