CUP: Hamlin Comes Up Dry In Desert

A professional race car driver’s life often travels between extremes, especially for those who would be champion.

Denny Hamlin led the most laps at the Phoenix International Raceway and was the odds-on favorite to turn next weekend’s Sprint Cup finale in Homestead, Fla., into a coronation – his own. But the tables were turned by a fuel-mileage finish. When the sun set in the Arizona desert, one of the closest title fights in NASCAR history had been set up.

Fernando Alonso entered the weekend believing he was the odds-on favorite to win a third World Championship in the season finale at Abu Dhabi and his first for Ferrari. But when the sun went down in the Persian Gulf and the lights came on, the man trailing in a distant third place in the points at the start, Sebastian Vettel, became the youngest F1 champion in history.

Matt Hagan entered the final eliminations of the NHRA season at the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona as the favorite to upset the domination of the Funny Car category by John Force and his team. After qualifying second-year man Hagan needed to go three rounds to guarantee himself the title. He lost in the first round and never made it to the night of fire, when Force clinched the Auto Club of Southern California Finals as well as the Funny Car title.

Thus grinds the grist mill of championships. The husk is separated from the inner being as the season wends its way from the heat of summer toward balmy autumn locales. Who has what it takes to really excel, not just accelerate?

It’s been said the champions are made, not born. And that may be true when it comes to the furnace of head-to-head title runs or the three-way and four-way battles that have cropped up this year. But one suspects that a larger-than-life determination – the source of charisma – arrives at birth and remains a wellspring for those who would be champions.

Still, it’s not enough. Ever-determined Aussie Mark Webber rang up his internal engine room and came up empty versus teammate Vettel at Red Bull Racing over the course of the final three races despite having the same decisive horsepower from Renault. One could see it in Webber’s demeanor and hear it in his voice that he knew his pace wasn’t going to be fast enough after qualifying in Abu Dhabi. In retrospect, it’s almost as if he pushed too hard in the rain in Korea before his fateful accident to prove he had what it takes.

The determination sometimes must be displayed through persistance. Ferrari’s Alonso and Hagan can both legitimately point to engine issues as the source of their setbacks. They can only contemplate comebacks next year.

Will Hamlin, who had an engine issue of sorts in Phoenix, have enough determination and speed to hold off Jimmie Johnson and dark horse Kevin Harvick in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway? His post-race comments in Phoenix epitomized a voyage of extremes.

Hamlin hovered near doom and defeat after the ecstacy of kicking ass turned elusive due to ponies from Toyota that proved to be thirsty, forcing a late-race pit stop for fuel that cost him dearly. The Virginia driver, however, was determined not to lose the psychological edge, eventually acknowledging that there can be worse things than leading the championship headed into the final race at a track where his team knows how to win. Still, he talked in the past tense. “We were sitting pretty,” he said.

Once a prima donna, Hamlin refocused on leading his Joe Gibbs Racing team to the promise and relief of a championship. It’s the sort of resilience everybody looks for in a champion. After weeks of being slagged off as the man who has changed the image of NASCAR and cost the sport some of its fan following, Johnson showed some resilience of his own.

Johnson, who sometimes suffers from making it look easy, coaxed enough laps from one tank of gas without losing too many positions to close the gap in the title hunt, the sort of determination it takes to finish at the top. Afterward, he shrewdly declared his team was ready to take the title if the boys of Hamlin were not “on their toes,” the first direct challenge to the opposition from the driver who always handles interviews with the confidence of a poker player holding at least one ace. This time he played it.

Some might suggest that charisma was born when John Force came into the world. At the very least, he has shown what many before him have not when it comes to the autumn of a long racing career: pace and heart. When others begin to consider the comforts of home and hearth versus the whipsaw of the racing line, they slip into the nether world of believing the inner fires are still burning even as they begin to flicker. Force withstood a life-threatening accident (not for the first time) in Dallas three years ago plus serious injuries before coming back to claim a 15th title from Hagan and the veteran Don Schumacher Racing team.

Now one hotly contested title remains.

With a 15-point difference, theoretically the race in Homestead could end in a dead heat between Hamlin and Johnson. It’s reminiscent of the day in 1992 when owner/driver Alan Kulwicki — now there was a determined fellow — finished second to Bill Elliott’s Junior Johnson-owned Ford in Atlanta but claimed the title from the redhead by leading the most laps. In Homestead, it could end up in a dead heat with Johnson winning, but unable to clear Hamlin in the points if the latter leads at least one lap and finishes second. It’s going to be that close. The number of victories is the tie-breaker, in which case under this scenario Hamlin would beat Johnson 8-7.

It may come down to who leads the most laps and gets the five bonus points. In all cases, somebody’s going to have to be holding a pretty wheel under a lot of pressure to claim the trophy and declare an end to this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Jonathan Ingram has been writing full-time about the world’s major motor racing series and events since 1983 for newspapers, magazines and web sites. Jonathan can be reached at