NASCAR Race Weekend Central

No Bull: Hold On, Who’s Winning the Points Race? Does Denny Hamlin Know It?

If you were watching Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Phoenix as a newbie or casual fan with no knowledge of how the 2010 Chase is going, you would have thought that Denny Hamlin‘s 12th-place finish knocked him out of title contention.

Not the case. Hamlin has a 15-point lead over Jimmie Johnson.

Let me repeat that. Hamlin has a 15-point lead over Johnson.

So there was no reason for this guy to be as publicly dejected as he was after Sunday’s race, right? Sure, he lost a great chance to bury Johnson — well, as much as a four-time defending champion can be buried — and cruise to a top-10 finish and a championship at Homestead. I get that. But remember, Hamlin is the one with a 15-point lead, which makes him the automatic favorite on paper.

The first two answers of the driver’s post-race press conference were one-line affairs. Maybe dejection isn’t an apt description of his mood.

But Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford had to play the race the way that they did – just like Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had to do the opposite if they wanted to stay in touch.

The No. 48 team didn’t have the car to catch Hamlin, and Knaus knew that. That’s why he had Johnson start to save fuel at the beginning of the run. Further ahead, Hamlin and Ford were racing for the win – they had the best car for the majority of the race – and when you’re racing for the win, you don’t immediately race for the fuel-mileage game.

“Well, we don’t know if it’s the final caution,” Hamlin said after the race, explaining the strategy he seemed not to agree with in hindsight. “We could have made it. There were a ton of guys that made it that pitted at the same time we did. 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.”

Whether or not that’s an implication that Ford didn’t do his job is something you can consider for yourself, but the crew chief said after the race that the team wasn’t getting good mileage all weekend, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the team was going to be short. However, that said, mileage seems like something that everyone should be on the same page about. 12 miles is a lot of fuel to save.

(On a side note, how ironic would it have been if Hamlin would have been bailed out by a late debris caution? The same type of caution that he railed against after winning at Michigan?)

Sure, Hamlin didn’t land the haymaker that he thought he was going to, but this Chase is a 10-round fight. Just because you didn’t end it by a TKO in the ninth round doesn’t mean that your chances are all but gone in the 10th and final one, especially if you’ve outscored your opponent in those first nine.

Let me repeat it once again: Hamlin has a 15-point lead over Johnson.

Hamlin took to Twitter late Sunday night to repeat that the title Chase wasn’t over, almost like he had to verify to himself and the world that Johnson hadn’t taken over the title race.

Remember, Hamlin has a 15-point lead over Johnson.

Hamlin’s been the best driver at intermediate tracks this season and Johnson has struggled. It’s a matchup that may make Hamlin the favorite even if he was 15 points down to Johnson. But if you’re the favorite – or even the underdog – you don’t act like you’ve been kicked in the groin when you didn’t succeed with time still left.

Hamlin has a 15-point lead over Johnson. And this weekend’s race at Homestead should be a doozy.

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