In the bitter end, a season of brilliance and courage was undone by the tiniest misjudgment, a momentary lapse that ultimately would cost Denny Hamlin dearly.
First, it cost him a chance at defending his 2009 race victory in the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
More importantly, it cost him his lifelong dream of becoming NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.
On Lap 24 of the 267-lap Homestead race, Hamlin was battling Greg Biffle coming through Turn 4. As the two cars exited the corner, it appeared Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota drifted up almost imperceptibly into Biffle's Roush Fenway Racing Ford, or maybe Biffle’s car came down a little. However it happened the two cars made slight but significant contact. That, in turn sent Hamlin spinning into the grass apron, where he damaged the splitter, the right-front nose of the car, and more importantly, the alignment of the right-front tire.
“It looks like I was on the inside of him and somebody went three-wide on him (Biffle) right at the last minute, and he came down and got into our right front,” said Hamlin. “Nobody's fault, at all. Just one of those things where three cars, it was not enough space for three cars at that point.”
For most of the rest of the race, Hamlin was in absolute catch-up mode, as crew chief Mike Ford tried to get his damaged Toyota dialed in. At times, Hamlin was able to move through the field, and after a yellow flag on Lap 165 for Kevin Conway’s spin, Hamlin’s crew busted off a 12.8-second pit stop that put him on track ahead of Johnson, who had a 15.2-second stop.
At that moment, it appeared Hamlin’s title hopes were still very viable.
But Hamlin’s advantage would prove short-lived. After a debris caution sent the field down pit road on Lap 189, Johnson’s Hendrick team ripped off a 12.7-second stop that put the No. 48 Chevrolet back ahead of the No. 11 Toyota for good.
“We had a good pit stop, put us in front of that 48 and actually out ran them that one run and spaced ourselves from him, but that was the absolute best the car could be for the conditions of the car with it being knocked around,” said Hamlin. “So that was the best-case scenario and as soon as those guys got — we came back in, we were actually ahead of them. We had less than stellar pit stop that put us back about four spots behind him and he never looked back.”
Hamlin pitted again on Lap 239, his fate sealed for good five laps later, when Kyle Busch crashed. That caught Hamlin a lap down, and although he was able to take the wave-around to get back on the lead lap, he couldn’t pit for fresh rubber.
He restarted the race 18th and finished 14th, 39 points behind Johnson.
“Our car was really fast at the beginning,” Hamlin said. “I mean, just unbelievably fast at the beginning, and I knew we had a car that could contend for a win, and obviously when we got in that incident on the back straightaway, it tore up the front and knocked the toe out and obviously the car did not drive as well for the rest of the day. “We just tried to patch it and work on it the best we could but just wasn't the car that it was at the beginning. It's just part of racing.”
And Hamlin made it clear that he thought the title was lost the week before at Phoenix, where he led the most laps but had to make one extra pit stop for gas, which dropped him to 12th in that race, behind both Johnson and Kevin Harvick.
“There was a lot of circumstances in which we had an opportunity to win the championship,” said Hamlin. “You know, by the numbers, fuel mileage was one contributor, (one) factor. But it's part of racing. Strategy is part of racing. It's not just about the fastest car and best driver. There's a whole lot that goes into this sport and that's what makes it as good as it is.”
And then, he uttered the only words he could under the circumstances.
“We'll just keep fighting and get 'em next year,” said Hamlin.
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.