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There's a school of thought in sportswriting which holds that the word "choke" is the nuclear option, the weapon of last resort. It's thrown around all too easily, of course, but it shouldn't be. There's a world of difference between truly choking -- missing a two-foot putt to win the Masters, say -- and just getting flat-out outplayed.
Denny Hamlin didn't choke ... but he did get outplayed.
Jimmie Johnson hammered down his fifth straight championship in the closing laps of Sunday's Homestead race, but in truth, Hamlin's fate was probably sealed a week earlier. When Hamlin's crew chief Mike Ford brought the 11 into the pits in Phoenix while Johnson stayed out, benefitting from a savvy fuel-conservation decision, it not only cut into Hamlin's points lead, it gave the 48 team a fighting chance. Hamlin went from taking a potential 60-point lead into Homestead to a 15-point one. And he lost by 40 points. You can do the math.
"You come at the king," Omar once said on The Wire, "you best not miss." In Phoenix, Hamlin missed. And that was all Johnson needed.
Though he claimed he was only nervous in the last hour before the race, Hamlin's actions throughout the week suggested otherwise. He appeared visibly ill at ease during Thursday's press conference, and retreated to a "I know you are, but what am I?" slapback style on Friday.
And while Hamlin has never qualified well at Homestead, that's no excuse for what happened later on Friday. It's the most important qualifying session of his entire life, and he ends up 37th? Really? There's no excuse for that, none at all, and that, after Phoenix, marked the next chapter in a book Hamlin didn't want to finish.
Hamlin's poor qualifying position led directly to his first problem on Sunday, when midpack traffic sent Greg Biffle into him early in the race. It took him and Ford at least a hundred laps to undo the damage to the splitter, and to their race position, from that spin. And while Hamlin has the ability to run like greased quicksilver, he rarely got the chance.
Hamlin also had plain old bad luck, getting caught on pit road when Kevin Harvick dumped Kyle Busch. That forced Hamlin to the back of the pack, and with as well as Johnson was running, the race was pretty much over.
Look, let's not take anything away from Johnson here; he drove exceptionally well and put together a masterful strategic race. And Hamlin didn't serve up this championship with whipped cream and a cherry on top. But of the Big 3, only one didn't run to the best of his potential. And it ended up costing him the Sprint Cup.