The look on Denny Hamlin's face after Sunday’s race at Homestead told the whole story.
An upbeat season in which Hamlin lived up to his promise to contend for a NASCAR Sprint Cup champion ended on a downbeat note when Jimmie Johnson beat the odds and Hamlin to win an unprecedented and amazing fifth straight title.
In the history of NASCAR, dating to 1948, only two drivers have previously won more than four championships in their entire careers – Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who both won seven.
Johnson, at the age of 35, has five in his first nine seasons. Almost as incredible, JJ has never finished worse than fifth in the points and also has two runner-up finishes to his credit, including losing the title to Kurt Busch by just eight points in 2004.
Still, Hamlin is well on his way to establishing some solid credentials of his own.
In five full-time Cup seasons, the 30-year-old Hamlin has racked up finishes of second and third and has not finished worse than 12th.
One old saying in racing is that you have to lose a championship before you can win one. Well, Hamlin has now done the first part.
He went into Homestead with a 15-point lead over Johnson and came away 39 points behind. It’s the first time since 1992 that the driver leading the standings going into the last race of the season has not finished on top.
But there’s certainly no shame in losing to Johnson and the No. 48 Chevrolet team of Rick Hendrick. Those guys just seem to find a way to win. And their consistency in the 10-race Chase for the championship is now legendary.
While Hamlin was solid in the Chase with seven top-10s and nothing worse than a 14th-place finish two weeks ago in Phoenix, Johnson came back from a 25th-place run in the Chase opener at Loudon with nine straight top 10s, including finishes of fifth and second in the last two races.
Talk about a psych-out.
Now Hamlin, who led everyone with seven race wins in 2010, is faced with a winter of ifs. The big question is how he and his No. 11 Toyota team will respond?
“It’s going to be fuel for me,’’ Hamlin said of the disappointment . “I’m just going to try to get better.
“There’s things that I can improve on as a driver. I’ve got to work on qualifying. I’ll study that in the offseason. I’ve got to work on my outright speed on the short go’s, on restarts. Those are the things that I’ve got to get better at and, as a team, I’ll debrief with them and tell them the things that I feel like our cars need to be to be better in the future.
“I can assure you we’re going to hang our heads high because we came close this year,’’ Hamlin added. “We had a great year. (It) just was a little short at the end.’’
As for Johnson, whether you appreciate him or not, it’s pretty darn hard to dismiss what he and crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the 48 team have accomplished over the course of half a decade.
Johnson knows there are haters out there, even people who blame his success, rather than the awful economy, for the growing number of empty grandstand seats and for shrinking TV ratings.
But he does believe that his string of championships and the way he has won them have reaped “a ton of respect.’’
“I’ve watched our fan base grow leaps and bounds,’’ Johnson said after the race. “People tell me they hate me, but they respect me, and that’s always cool. (There was) a guy that had an `I hate 48’ t-shirt on when I was on the SPEED stage, but (he) was giving me a thumbs‑up and said, `Congratulations.’
“In the moment, I think it’s tough for fans to maybe look at what we have accomplished because they want their guy to win, and I understand that. But I know what (we) have done today is respected sports-wide, not just in our little bubble we live in.’’
Realistically, this latest title probably won’t make the haters go away. But Johnson said he isn’t concerned about that.
“If this it takes it to the next level, then right on,’’ JJ said. “But I don’t need it to make me feel better about what we’ve done. I’m totally content based on our performance. I know my fan base is extremely proud right now.’’
And now the planning for 2011 begins in earnest. Johnson will work just as hard to make it six in a row as he did for the first five. Hamlin and the rest of the chasers will try to figure out a way to beat him.
It won’t be easy for any of them, but it should make for plenty of fun for the rest of us. I can hardly wait for Daytona.