The most uncomfortable seat among the many waiting to be filled in the Wynn hotel ballroom for Friday night’s Sprint Cup awards banquet has Denny Hamlin's name on it.
Although there is much to be said for finishing second in the 38-race, 10-month grind that is the Cup season, visions of what could have – and probably should have – been will fill Hamlin’s head through tonight’s long awards ceremony. And probably through the long winter to come.
The singing, the comedy, the performances by Vegas headliners – even the big second-place check – won’t do much to settle Hamlin’s stomach. It might be one of the longest nights of his racing career.
Conventional wisdom holds that Hamlin lost the championship on the final day of the season as Jimmie Johnson rallied from a 15-point deficit to win the title by 39. It’s more accurate, however, to pin Hamlin’s crushing loss at another calendar date – the previous Sunday in the desert at Phoenix, where a dominant race car and brilliant driving got him basically a sharp kick to the butt.
Hamlin essentially could have won the Cup title that day. Instead, he lost it. As the race changed in chemistry from an on-track test of wills and speed to an event whose finish would be based almost entirely on fuel mileage, Hamlin’s team lost its way. He had to pit with 14 laps to go, a circumstance that obliterated the fine work he had done all day. Johnson and Kevin Harvick were suddenly back in the hunt.
In fact, Johnson was much better than that. He got such a boost from Hamlin’s Phoenix troubles that virtually everybody left Arizona figuring Johnson had the momentum going into Homestead, even though Hamlin had the lead. Johnson buttered that biscuit, emphasizing he was under no pressure because he could run purely on the offensive.
Hamlin got to Homestead and saw his Chase master plan – race steady in the early events and then charge in the closing weeks – come apart in the heat of the last day, one that included a bumpup as he tried to catch Johnson.
Johnson won the championship with relative ease.
Hamlin seems to have moved forward since that grim Sunday in south Florida. He has accepted what happened, underscored the fact that he can’t change any of it, has committed to learning from it and has directed his strength toward next season – and the next and the next.
Hamlin is only 30 years old and figures to be a championship contender for many years to come. He emphasized during this year’s Chase, despite his success over its middle section, that he didn’t consider this year his once-in-a-lifetime shot at a title. There will be many more to come, he said.
Still, there will be the thoughts of what might have been bouncing through his head Friday night as NASCAR puts another crown on Johnson’s head.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.