This week, SPEED.com counts down the five best NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of the 2010 season. No. 5 is the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Denny Hamlin could taste his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Fresh off a dramatic late-race victory at Texas Motor Speedway, the Virginia native arrived at Phoenix International Raceway with a 33-point lead over Jimmie Johnson and all the confidence in the world. He and his Joe Gibbs Racing squad were on top of their game and set to deliver the knockout punch on Johnson.
Hamlin qualified 17th for the Kobalt Tools 500, four positions ahead of Johnson and 12 spots ahead of Kevin Harvick, who was third in points. And when the green flag fell at the one-mile PIR oval, Hamlin put the hammer down.
He took the lead for the first time on Lap 66 of the 312-lap event, and would lead 190 of the next 200 laps, while Johnson spent most of that time back around the periphery of the top 10. A victory at PIR would all but seal the championship for Hamlin and give him an insurmountable lead heading into the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Hamlin was the defending race winner.
But it was not to be.
Pole-sitter Carl Edwards, who was buried in the throes of a 70-race winless streak, blew past Hamlin on Lap 266 and kept his No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford out front for the remainder of the race to score an emotional victory.
Hamlin had bigger issues, though.
He had to pit for fuel on Lap 298, while Johnson and Harvick managed to nurse their fuel loads from the final caution period, which ended on Lap 239, until the end of the race.
The extra pit stop meant that instead of winning a race that he had dominated — and sewing up the championship in the process — Hamlin finished 12th, with Johnson and Harvick coming home fifth and sixth, respectively. That cut Hamlin’s points lead by more than half, with Johnson only 15 back and Harvick 31 in arrears.
More importantly, perhaps, it shattered Hamlin’s confidence. In his post-race interviews, he appeared totally shocked by the sudden turn of events. He was also clearly upset with crew chief Mike Ford.
“Knowing that we had a very, very good points lead with 15 or 20 (laps) to go that quickly diminishes, it hurts,” Hamlin said. “It hurts when you have a car that can possibly win. So for me, I wasn't aware that anyone was going to try to stretch it and make it. Mike didn't make me aware that anyone was going to stretch it and make it so I went out there and ran as hard as I could. Unfortunately, our car didn't have as good of fuel mileage as everyone else’s.”
The fuel mileage issue was especially upsetting to Hamlin.
“There were a ton of guys that made it that pitted at the same time we did,” he said. “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.”
Johnson, meanwhile, sensed Hamlin was vulnerable.
“I don't disrespect his anger,” said Johnson. “I don't disrespect where he's coming from because I understand. He wants to win this championship bad. He's dedicated his life to it. I also know that this week is going to be a tough week for him because I've been there. I hope he can't handle it as well as I did in '06. I want it to work out for me. Selfishly for me, I want him to not do the right things. We'll just see how the week works out.”
As for race-winner Edwards, he was all smiles.
“A win is very important to us,” said Edwards, who also won the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at PIR. “It's a very big accomplishment for us. I think it's something that we needed for our confidence. We needed it as a payoff for all the hard work the guys have put in at the shop, the engine department.”
It also was a good omen for the season finale at Homestead, one of the team’s very best tracks.
“It would be nice to get another one at Homestead,” said Edwards. “But to go into the offseason knowing that we're getting better, looks like we have a legitimate shot to finish fourth in the points, to be in the (Sprint) All-Star Race next season, to have that energy going forward, all those things are good.”
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.