Hamlin led the most laps in the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway Sunday, but had to make a late-race fuel stop which dropped him from second place to 12th at the finish, and greatly tighten up the top of the Chase field.
Here’s how the top 12 spots shape up heading into next Sunday’s season-ending Ford 400:
1. DENNY HAMLIN, Joe Gibbs Racing, 12th place in the race — Just when it seemed certain that Hamlin would be the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, a fuel-mileage race broke out and he was the big loser. He’s 15 points ahead heading into Homestead-Miami Speedway.6,462 points.
2. JIMMIE JOHNSON, Hendrick Motorsports, 5th — Slower than Hamlin all race long, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus kept the team’s dream of a fifth-consecutive championship alive by milking fuel mileage until the bitter end. Now, the pressure is squarely on Hamlin.6,447 points.
3. KEVIN HARVICK, Richard Childress Racing, 6th — A mixture of both lucky and good, Harvick had to make a second final pit stop to replace a loose lugnut. But that allowed him to top off with fuel and go on to stay in title contention. 6,416 points.
4. CARL EDWARDS, Roush Fenway Racing, 1st — Perfection personified, Edwards qualified on the pole, led all three practice sessions and broke a 70-race winless streak, plus he won Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race. Can’t do any better than Edwards did this weekend. 6,198 points.
5. MATT KENSETH, Roush Fenway Racing, 7th — The 2003 Sprint Cup champion had a solid, if unspectacular run at Phoenix, scoring his third top 10 in the last five races and has a good chance to finish fifth in points.6,151 points.
6. JEFF GORDON, Hendrick Motorsports, 11th — Why did Jimmie Johnson switch pit crews with Jeff Gordon last week at Texas? Gordon knows now, as his crew did him no favors on pit road at Phoenix. 6,124 points.
7. KYLE BUSCH, Joe Gibbs Racing, 13th — The Shrub got bitten in the backside by the fuel mileage thing, the same way his teammate Hamlin did. He ran much, much better than his finishing position indicated. 6,115 points.
8. GREG BIFFLE, Roush Fenway Racing, 5th — Although Biffle’s car was nowhere near as fast as it was the week before at Texas Motor Speedway, he still was able to capture his second consecutive top-five finish and gain a spot in the points. 6,113 points.
9. TONY STEWART, Stewart-Haas Racing, 17th — He ran in the top-five briefly, but Stewart faded badly at the end of the race, winding up with a disappointing finish. 6,074 points.
10. KURT BUSCH, Penske Racing, 9th — The penultimate race for Busch in the Blue Deuce was OK, but not spectacular. A top 10 result was good for the Penske squad, though hardly remarkable.6,033 points.
11. CLINT BOWYER, Richard Childress Racing, 21st — Caught in an early incident that damaged his RCR Chevrolet, Bowyer really had no opportunity to play a role in the outcome of the race. 6,028 points.
12. JEFF BURTON, Richard Childress Racing, 19th — Another loser in the fuel-mileage gamble, Burton fell from the top five to the bottom of the top 20 of the race.5,958 points.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.