Fryer’s Five: Hamlin takes a hit, but must fight on

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As Denny Hamlin watched the final few rounds of Manny Pacquiao’s total beatdown of Antonio Margarito on Saturday night, the NASCAR driver found a new level of respect for the battered boxer.

“There is something to be said about a man who can take a punch and not give up or go down,” Hamlin posted on Twitter late Saturday night.

When the lights went down on Phoenix International Raceway less than 24 hours later, Hamlin’s fans must be desperately hoping he heeded his own words.

Poor fuel strategy left him devastated at the end of Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500, where despite a 12th-place finish and the points lead intact, Hamlin looked absolutely crestfallen as he sat slumped on the pit road wall. A dominating run had given Hamlin a firm grasp on the Sprint Cup title, to the point where many believed the championship race was essentially over.

Then it wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

After Sunday's race, Denny Hamlin was left asking crew chief Mike Ford why they didn't have enough fuel to make it to the end.

What should have been a lead of almost 60 points over Jimmie Johnson was sliced to a mere 15 points when Hamlin was forced to pit for fuel with 14 laps left Sunday. He’d already lost the lead to Carl Edwards, but he was running second, and neither Johnson nor Kevin Harvick had anything for him.

Hamlin crew chief Mike Ford thought Johnson also would need to stop for gas, but Chad Knaus played it perfectly: Knowing that Hamlin needed fuel, Knaus ordered Johnson to ease out of the gas and coast to the finish.

The final result was a 12th-place finish for Hamlin, a fifth-place finish for Johnson and a sixth-place finish for Harvick. It made for likely the most despondent points leader in NASCAR history as Hamlin couldn’t hide his misery.

“I hate that it boils down to the final race, but that’s what fans love,” Hamlin said. “I felt like we’ve been the best car over this Chase, and we might not win it.”

No, he may not, and that may eat away at Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing team all week.

They had Johnson on the ropes, and a pit-road penalty for Harvick had the No. 11 team in perfect position to coast into Homestead-Miami Speedway (where Hamlin is the defending race winner) and wrap up their first Cup title with an easy Sunday drive.

But when a caution with 90 laps left sent the field to pit road, Ford knew he’d need some more yellows to ensure Hamlin had enough fuel to make it to the finish. When they filled the tank on that stop, Ford immediately told Hamlin they were 12 to 14 laps short on gas. There was never any concern to save gas. They knew they didn’t have enough, likely figured Johnson was in the same position, and knew one more pit stop was inevitable.

Twenty-six laps later, Edwards passed Hamlin for the lead. Running second with 14 laps left, Ford called Hamlin in for gas. It dropped him to 19th. With Johnson and Harvick still running in the top 10, Hamlin had to drive like a madman to reclaim as much track position as possible.

It’s hard not to feel for Hamlin, who did everything he had to do Sunday, only to fall victim to something out of his control.

He was frustrated, disappointed, maybe even slightly shaken by the unbelievable turn of events. The trick now will be to step up and snap out of it – or risk not having any chance at all next week at Homestead.

It’s doubtful that when Hamlin hit “send” on that tweet the night before that he had any idea how it would parallel his own situation. Now is the time for Hamlin to take the punch from Sunday’s disappointment and not give up or go down.

1. Can Hamlin bounce back?

It’s hard to say since he’s never been in this situation in NASCAR. The closest comparison would be earlier this year when most everyone dismissed his title chances after he tore the ACL in his left knee.

Hamlin was adamant he could recover from the injury, and he was just as determined after undergoing surgery in March to repair the ligament. He’s physically bounced back from every hit, and proven his mental toughness at every turn.

But this is much bigger, and the competition – Johnson and Harvick – have stronger résumés – Johnson being the four-time defending champion, Harvick having experienced title pressure in the Nationwide Series – when it comes to weathering high-pressure situations.

Despite a downtrodden demeanor, Hamlin said all the right things about his disposition.

“I did everything I was supposed to do, things didn’t work out for me,” he said. “All I can do is concentrate on next week, once Monday comes, and put it behind me. It could have been a lot worse. We could have lost the points lead.”

Hamlin could turn to team owner Joe Gibbs, the three-time Super Bowl winning coach, for motivation or advice on how to bounce back from this bitter disappointment. He said he doesn’t need Gibbs.

“I won’t need a pep talk,” he groused. “I’m going to be disappointed for the next couple hours. But trust me, when I get home, I’m done with it. I’m going to move on and try how to figure out how to win next week. This is fuel for me.”

2. Johnson has to be loving his chances

There’s no way to sugarcoat it for Johnson, who knows all too well that Hamlin has outrun him the last few weeks. But a champion can overcome disadvantages, and Johnson pulled it off to perfection Sunday.

Crew chief Chad Knaus knew Hamlin was going to have to stop for fuel, so with 25 laps to go, he slowed Johnson down. When Hamlin did pit, the No. 48 had clear sailing to the finish: Knaus could forfeit position on the track so long as Hamlin finished behind Johnson, and Johnson didn’t run out of gas.

“We were listening to the Gibbs cars, and we knew that they were going to be light, so with 25 to go, I told [Johnson] to go ahead and start backing off some more,” Knaus explained. “Once [Hamlin] and [Kyle Busch] pitted, then I knew that we could start laying back and making sure we made it. It turned out great.”

Johnson recognized immediately that he’d shifted into offense, and seized the opportunity to take charge. He didn’t fire any verbal volleys toward the No. 11 team, and didn’t dismiss Hamlin’s potential.

Instead, he reveled in the fact that Hamlin knows he’s right there, on his bumper, ready to grab his fifth consecutive title.

“We didn’t run like we wanted to. We ran well and have nothing to be disappointed in but a good day right now isn’t going to get it done. You have to have a great day,” Johnson said. “So the fact that the fuel mileage was there today and got us in position to go to Homestead and really race for this and to put a lot of pressure on that No. 11 is the biggest thing working for us right now.

“We made chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what and had a good finish.”

That’s got Hamlin on his heels, Johnson figures, and Johnson didn’t sound all too convinced that Hamlin will be able to weather the stress of the next seven days. Johnson has lived through the pressures of winning a first title, and knows it isn’t easy.

“I know that this week is going to be a tough week for him because I’ve been there,” Johnson said. “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.”

3. Harvick pulled off an amazing save

Harvick wasn’t the only one who thought, ‘There it went,’ when a missing lug nut sent him back into the pits after the caution with 90 laps to go. He fell from fifth to 18th, and any chance of staying in the championship race seemed dead in the water.

Ultimately, the penalty might have actually saved his season.

Harvick was able to squeeze in an extra stop for fuel, and so long as the race went caution-free, he was the only one of the title contenders who for sure had enough gas to get to the finish. Upset at the time of the pit road problem, he pulled it together and picked up valuable positions – and points – at the end.

“I kind of got over it after about 15 laps and just started driving the car again, and it all worked out in the end,” Harvick said. “Our mistake wound up being something that gained us more points than if we would have not made the mistake. We just kept after it and wound up getting an OK day.”

Even though he’s 46 points behind Hamlin, Harvick still likes his chances. He’s got seven top-10 finishes in nine previous races at Homestead, and he was second and third there the last two years.

“We just have to be aggressive,” Harvick said. “That’s been a great race track. It’s our best race track on the circuit, so we’re looking forward to it.”

4. Edwards got back to victory lane

Remember when Edwards was the guy everybody thought would beat Johnson? That was two years ago, when Edwards’ win in the 2008 season finale was his ninth of the year and third in the final four races. Though he fell 69 points short in the championship battle that year, he appeared poised to challenge Johnson again in ’09.

Carl Edwards celebrates his first win in almost two years with the crowd at Phoenix International Raceway.

Instead, Edwards fell off the map as Roush Fenway Racing went through a period of struggles that took all of its drivers out of championship contention.

Seventy wins went by between Edwards’ last win (at Homestead) and this one at Phoenix, where the title was an afterthought and improving for next year was the only goal. Mission accomplished with a rare, perfect weekend for Edwards, who won the pole, led every practice session and won the race.

As an added bonus, he also won the Nationwide Series race on Saturday.

“A win is very important to us,” he said. “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 would be nice to get another one at Homestead. 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 have that energy going forward, all those things are good.”

Edwards is very good at Homestead, and it’s entirely possible that he’ll end this season where he left off in 2008: on a roll and the popular pick for next year’s title.

5. Joey Logano is on pace to win the Daytona 500

OK, so maybe that’s a little farfetched. But his third-place finish Sunday certainly had everyone abuzz about what Logano has done of late.

Why? Because in the last five races, Logano has finished, in order, seventh, sixth, fifth, fourth and now third. If the trend were to continue, he’d finish second next week at Homestead and then open next year with a win in the biggest race of the season.

“Our last few finishes have been crazy,” Logano understated.

After a rough rookie year, Logano is making steady strides and goes into the final race ranked 16th in points, but only 17 points out of wrapping up a top-15 finish in the final standings. And, he’s building momentum for a better third year.

“It’s huge, huge. We’re trying to get 15th in points,” he said. “We’re close. We lost as little as possible there. If we finish off the year like this, I’m excited about next year, that’s for sure.”

Jenna Fryer covers NASCAR for The Associated Press and is a regular contributor to Yahoo! Sports. Follow her on Twitter. Send Jenna a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Nov 15, 2010