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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Denny Hamlin left Phoenix International Raceway with a 15-point lead with only one race to go in the Chase. But by the look on his face, you'd have thought he was coming from a funeral.
"It's tough not to be happy with a lead going into the last race, but I was sitting pretty," a visibly dejected Hamlin said after Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500.
And he was sitting pretty, having thoroughly dominated the race, leading 190 of 312 laps. Even when he gave up the lead late to a hard-charging Carl Edwards – who wound up snapping a 70-race winless streak – Hamlin still had Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick on the ropes.
His in-race lead in the Chase standings over his two closest challengers had swelled to more than 50 points. The Chase, hyped as the closest yet, looked like it wasn't going to go down to the wire. Hamlin was fixng to all but clinch it here in suburban Phoenix, not next weekend in South Florida.
But then he came down pit road for a final splash of fuel with only 14 laps to go – a decision that could ultimately end up costing Hamlin the championship and potentially win it for either Johnson or Harvick – and just like that, Hamlin was no longer in control.
Actually, the seeds to Hamlin's demise were sowed long before he came down pit road for the final time. Eighty-eight laps earlier, Hamlin and Johnson pitted together. As Johnson left pit road, his crew chief Chad Knaus came over the radio, telling him to conserve fuel. Hamlin's crew chief Mike Ford did not.
It was a Hail Mary strategy from Knaus, but one he had to employ. His driver had nothing for Hamlin on the track, and zigging while they, too, zigged would have certainly had Johnson leaving Phoenix in an almost insurmountable hole heading to the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Knaus' fuel strategy hinged entirely on the race remaining caution-free to the end – a longshot – but it was the only hand he had left to play.
And so as the laps wound down and Hamlin continued to tick off lap led after lap led, Knaus implored Johnson to back off the gas, refrain from touching his brake, all in an effort to squeeze 88 laps out of a tank of fuel that normally goes around 75 to 78.
When Hamlin came in for that final splash of gas – he and teammate Kyle Busch were the only ones among the leaders who did – the script had effectively been flipped. Johnson and Harvick were still on the track, both running in the top 10 with fuel still left in their tanks, while Hamlin went from running a comfortable second all the way to 19th.
He would make up seven spots to finish 12th. But he came home behind both Johnson (fifth) and Harvick (sixth), whose fuel tanks never sputtered.
Heading to the finale, Hamlin's lead over Johnson is now just 15 points, 46 over Harvick.
"If we ran out, yeah, we would have lost the chance to be the champions," Johnson said. "My emotions tried to get the best of me. I was on the edge of my seat, but I kept talking myself off the ledge. Just had to stay in check."
Said Knaus: "We were listening to the Gibbs cars and we knew that they were going to be light, so with 25 to go, I told him to go ahead and start backing off some more. And then once the 11 [Hamlin] and 18 [Busch] pitted, then I knew that we could start laying back and making sure we made it."
Now it's Hamlin who must talk himself off the ledge. As those laps wound down and he realized no one else had come in for fuel, he was left wondering why he had to. After all, doesn't Joe Gibbs Racing normally get better fuel mileage than everyone else? Isn't Johnson notorious for running out of gas? How could he, Hamlin, be short of everyone, let alone 12 laps short?
"That part I just don't understand," Hamlin said. "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."
Afterward, Ford was adamant that they couldn't have made it to the end on fuel, saying had they gone in conservation mode they would have fallen back to about where they ended up finishing anyway.
Another explanation could be that Ford didn't think the race would go caution-free to the end, because they usually don't. Still, it's a detail he didn't account for, and one that Knaus did.
The irony here is thick. A week ago after their win at Texas, Ford called Knaus' decision to change pit crews with teammate Jeff Gordon in the middle of the race an act of desperation. Not only did that move work out for Johnson and Knaus on Sunday – Johnson's new crew was consistently faster than his old one, now employed by Gordon – but Knaus' foresight could end up winning the title for his driver, while Ford's lack of it could wind up costing it for Hamlin.
"It's going to be tough," Hamlin said of next weekend's finale. "[Johnson and Harvick] are going to be good. We see that every week. They're top five. As far as I'm concerned, it's going to take a win."
With that, Hamlin got up, head staring straight at the ground, and walked out of the media center at Phoenix International Raceway, knowing that his title run is more uncertain than it needed to be.