Denny Hamlin looked like he had just seen Willie Nelson naked as he sat on the pit wall following last Sunday’s Sprint Cup race in Phoenix. With microphones and cameras in his face, he just kind of stared straight ahead and fumbled for words.
The scene had to leave NASCAR Nation wondering: Did the goofy events of the final 10 laps of the Kobalt Tools 500 leave the kid so mentally and emotionally cooked that his chances of winning this year’s Chase were over?
You’ve got to admit, it didn’t sound good. “I’m frustrated – trust me,” Hamlin said. “This is one of the bigger letdowns I’ve had.”
In a car which was clearly the best on the track, and having led a race-high 190 laps and many of those by wide margins, Hamlin had finished 12th.
Gone was his comfortable points lead and with it, his hopes for a nice, comfortable weekend in the South Florida sunshine.
The problem was that the Phoenix race had boiled down to a fuel-mileage job. Calculations from the pit boxes showed that Hamlin and Johnson would be in serious fuel trouble during the final laps.
And then it was choice time. Come in, top off, lose track position but finish; or, stay out, go for the victory, risk everything – everything.
Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus opted to stay out. Hamlin and Mike Ford did not. And as a result, Hamlin will arrive at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the season-ending Ford 400 just 15 points up on Johnson and 46 up on Harvick, who did not have fuel concerns at PIR.
The words Hamlin did muster as he sat there at PIR with cameras rolling and pencils scribbling could be construed as uncomplimentary toward his crew chief and team.
“We could have made it,” he said. “There were a ton of guys that made it that pitted at the same time we did. Usually, we have the best fuel mileage. That part I just don’t understand. I can save fuel pretty well. But, I was never alerted to save fuel. So, I assumed that everyone was going to have to pit. I didn’t even think it was a question. Like I said, I did my job.”
This week, during a teleconference, Ford brushed aside talk of freak-outs and hurt feelings. Kind of.
“You know,” Ford said, “the post-race comments, you mix – don’t take this the wrong way: When you’ve got a guy who’s not educated on what your limitations are and then you mix a little frustration with it, you get inaccurate statements, and then you’ve got to go back and educate and then everything makes sense.
“Denny is a competitor. He’s very smart in the race car. He knows what he’s looking for. He knows how to call races. He watches these races back, he studies them, he asks a lot of questions. But when you mix partial information with lack of information and then throw in a little frustration, you get inaccurate comments. I think he did good in his post-race at one point, then when he got to the media center, it just became more frustrating for him, and he said some things that weren’t true.
“I can deal with that. I respect that. I’m the same way. I’ll blow my stack occasionally, as well, and say things I wish I wouldn’t have said. But you can look over that. That’s nothing new. That’s how you handle it.”
The post-race scene the week before at Texas stood in contrast. And it didn't require an explainer a couple days later from Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus.
There, it was Johnson who took the bullet. Hamlin won the race and Johnson finished ninth in a car which was clearly not up to winning the race. As a result, he surrendered the points lead to Hamlin.
But it was a calm, philosophical Johnson who got out of his car in Forth Worth. Oh well, he basically said, we’ll get them next time. The message he sent to his team, crew chief and fans was quite a bit more positive.
This week, Knaus talked about the internal politics of race teams vis a vis unthoughtful words.
“I think you can (survive internal criticism) as long as you have a strong team,” Knaus said. “If you start blowing apart your teammates or your crew chief or your driver or whatever it may be in a situation like that, then it’s difficult to bounce back from it.
“But those guys (Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing team) are a pretty stand-up, solid team. I think they’re going to be perfectly fine. They’ve got great race cars, and they’ve got a really good driver, so I think that they’ll show up at the race track at Homestead 100 percent and ready to go. If they don’t, then they’re foolish because they’ve got an opportunity to do something pretty special.”
Sunday at Homestead, we’ll all find out if internal harmony is as important as horsepower and grip when it comes to winning championships in the Sprint Cup Series.
Jim Pedley is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist who has worked at, among other places, the Boston Globe, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Kansas City Star. Pedley spent more than 10 years covering auto racing for the Kansas City Star. Pedley can be reached at