For about 10 minutes Sunday night, the Chase was hinging on the edge of being completely over. Denny Hamlin had pitted and was working his way back up through the field, and Jimmie Johnson was apparently on wisps of fuel. With Kevin Harvick far back in the standings, if Johnson were to run out of fuel, Hamlin would have gone to Homestead with a near-insurmountable points lead.
As we know now, it didn't quite work out that way. Hamlin pitted early and splashed fuel, but it was enough to leave him 12th in the race and surrendering half his prerace lead over Johnson. (Were it not for the laps-led bonus, Hamlin would be a scant five points ahead of Johnson.) After the race, Hamlin was despondent while Johnson was confident, smoothly at ease and thrilled to have risen from the freshly-dug grave.
Put it this way: if you'd told Hamlin six months ago, one month ago, even two weeks ago that he'd have a 15-point lead over Johnson heading into Homestead, you'd have to imagine Hamlin was riding high, right? Only he's not, not at all. A 15-point differential is, for all practical purposes, a wash. And one needed to only look at the differing expressions on Hamlin's and Johnson's faces to see who's now got the upper hand, momentum-wise.
"It’s tough not to be happy with a lead going into the last race," Hamlin said after the race, and then after a long pause, added, "but I was sitting pretty." Shortly afterward, he and crew chief Mike Ford clearly weren't on the same page in the postrace press conference; Hamlin felt betrayed by the lack of guidance to save fuel from Ford, while Ford tried to assure Hamlin and the world that the 11 car wasn't getting good enough fuel mileage to survive a long green run.
Johnson, meanwhile, rode a wave of confidence. He didn't listen to what Hamlin had to say in the postrace press conference, and Hamlin fans better hope he doesn't read Johnson's comments.
"I know how bad he wants to win a championship," Johnson said. "I remember my first ... 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."
So the big question all week will be, can Hamlin leave Phoenix in Phoenix? He's absolutely got the skill and the car to beat Johnson straight up in Homestead. But can he control the toughest battle of all -- that of the proverbial six inches between the ears? Put another way, would you rather bet the farm on the guy who's good but faltering, or the guy who's four-time champ and charging?
Hamlin's tweet from just before midnight Sunday night was telling: "I told u once, ill tell u again.. It aint over." Hate to say it, but if you have to reassure your fans and yourself that it's not over ... it might just be over.