NASCAR Race Weekend Central

It Wasn’t Even Close: Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Organization Routed at Homestead

What goes around comes around. One reaps what they sow. An elephant (or Jimmy Spencer) never forgets. Racers have long memories. Whatever cliché one may want to apply, what was supposed to be a watershed moment for the Joe Gibbs Racing organization this Sunday in south Florida became comeuppance of the nastiest kind. Instead of leaving Cup champions, the JGR stable finds itself returning to North Carolina for a long offseason with no trophies of any kind, two wrecked racecars and a roster of drivers in borderline shock.

Sunday didn’t see Joe Gibbs Racing get beat. They got owned. And they have no one to thank but themselves for watching the entire 2010 season explode in their faces at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Coming into the weekend, the stage was set for Denny Hamlin to do what he had been favored to do since this race one year ago; dethrone Jimmie Johnson as Sprint Cup champion. With a convincing win at Martinsville that saw Hamlin score a coup on his home track, a track where Johnson typically dominated but on this weekend faded away at the finish, his team got the scent of blood in the water. Two weeks later at Texas, that scent became a feeding frenzy; the No. 11 team stormed to victory and the points lead while the No. 48 team floundered, fading in the race’s second half and benching their pit crew in favor of Jeff Gordon‘s. Coming into Sunday’s season finale, they sat somewhere nobody had since 2005… ahead of Johnson with the title on the line.

One day later, one look at the headlines this morning says it all. This title didn’t materialize as planned.

And it wasn’t just bad racing luck on Sunday that bit the No. 11 team. Sure, Hamlin did get in over his head in making contact with Greg Biffle on lap 24. Sure, Johnson’s car underwent Chad Knaus’s magic wand en route to coming on late and scoring a runner-up finish. But Sunday was bigger than that. It was instead an entire racing organization finally, for lack of a better expression, getting what they had coming. The facts are this; Joe Gibbs Racing dug its own grave in cultivating the circumstances that cost Hamlin a title shot, and derailed any semblance of momentum the Nos. 11, 18 and 20 teams had headed into the offseason.

In case readers were watching ESPN without the benefit of an MRN broadcast, let’s clarify something that the network foolishly omitted from their coverage. Joey Logano finished 39th as a result of crash damage incurred in a lap 140 wreck with Juan Pablo Montoya. While this incident was televised, what happened next wasn’t. Logano, under yellow, retaliated against Montoya, sending the No. 42 car to the garage as well. Montoya, irate over the episode, reportedly attempted to confront Logano in his garage stall but was stopped short by NASCAR officials. JGR further tweeted that No. 42 car owner Felix Sabates threatened to have the No. 11 car wrecked if Logano didn’t apologize to Montoya.

Nothing came of the warning; Montoya returned to the race late and never posed a threat to Hamlin’s Toyota. But the damage was done. Logano, in what has been a recurring theme in his second season in Cup, was bowled over once again, just as with Kevin Harvick at Bristol in the spring. And rather than confronting Montoya, rather than taking the previous episode to heart, Logano pulled about the sorriest retaliation tool he could out. He returned to the track with a wounded machine and waited for a caution to strike back.

This wasn’t like Clint Bowyer charging from pit road in the spring Nationwide Series race to tag Hamlin in a heat-of-the-moment action. This was calculated… calculated cowardice. And all Logano accomplished was to anger one of the most temperamental drivers in NASCAR. Heading into year three, there’s little room for doubt that he’ll continue to get pushed around on the sport’s biggest stage. Not to mention that the wreck midway through Sunday’s race derailed any chance for the team to win a consolation “best of the rest” prize for a 13th-place points finish.

Then there’s Kyle Busch, who fell victim (the term is used very loosely) to the most blatant takeout move the Cup Series has seen in recent memory when Harvick dumped him on the frontstretch with less than 25 laps to go.

Good luck finding anyone not clad in M&M’s or JGR gear to argue that Busch didn’t have this one coming for a long time. Harvick remarked post-race that he tagged Busch for “racing like a clown” throughout Sunday’s 400-miler, but who can also forget that since Dover, Richard Childress Racing may well have been at war with JGR? After all, it was none other than Busch’s teammate Hamlin that threw the legitimacy of a six-time title-winning organization under the bus in the Chase’s second race, playing up Bowyer’s penalty like RCR has been cheating for months. And it was Busch himself, NASCAR’s trashiest talker, who brashly proclaimed in the days leading up to Homestead that he would do absolutely anything he could to help the No. 11 team win the Cup.

JGR fired the first salvos of this volley; Busch made no secret that he intended to be an obstacle for both Harvick and Johnson, a role he played to the hilt all day in making himself a roving obstacle instead of a potentially race-winning car. So Harvick, as he unabashedly told Hamlin in post-race remarks, “parked his teammate.” Happy took NASCAR’s bad boy to the woodshed and set fire to his car for good measure. That moment wasn’t an example of a battle won; it was pure ownership.

And while a debate raged in the media center as to whether Harvick knew that wrecking Busch would also trap fellow title contender Hamlin one lap down, his intentions did not matter. In one fell swoop, with Harvick ending Busch’s season, he ended Hamlin’s as well; the resulting yellow flag caught the No. 11 off the lead lap after a cycle of green-flag pit stops, and all but sealed the deal for Johnson late in the race. RCR got the better of JGR courtesy of Harvick’s front bumper.

Busch being a clown or not, Hamlin bears an awful lot of responsibility for cultivating the ire that led Harvick to wreck his teammate. It was said even before the green flag dropped at Dover a few months back that declaring war on RCR the way Hamlin did may well prove to be a gaffe big enough to derail his team’s shot a title. And while it could be argued that the Cup was lost even before Harvick trapped him, the timing of that yellow forced the No. 11 team to take a wave-around, ending any chance they had coming in to make one more adjustment, to take one final swing at somehow catching the No. 48 car.

Further, Hamlin’s mouth wasn’t the only one responsible for awakening sleeping giants in their competitors. No. 11 crew chief Mike Ford was uncharacteristically bold in his post-race remarks following Hamlin’s win at Texas two weeks ago, asserting that he believed his driver and race team were flat out better than the four-time champs.

The No. 11 pit crew may have been faster over the last two races. But after Texas, after a race that saw Knaus both bench his crew and miss the mark on late-race adjustments that saw Johnson scarcely able to score a top-10 finish, the “evil genius” atop the No. 48 box was suddenly back on his “A” game. Johnson was a top-five fixture all race long at Phoenix, and was coached well enough during the final green-flag run to ensure saving enough fuel to finish. One week later, his performance at Homestead spoke for itself. Johnson never lost his cool despite three consecutive slow pit stops to start the event, nor did the crew chief react in a knee-jerk manner to bring the old No. 48 crew back over even after Gordon’s motor expired. But most importantly, when the race came down to it, the car had another gear in it when it was time to go. Instead of a dismal performance enacted at Martinsville or Texas, Johnson surged forward late in the going, running away from both Harvick and Hamlin en route to a fifth consecutive title.

It’s hardly a coincidence that Chad Knaus was seen holding a note card on pit road that said “our team won” for the TV cameras. And it’s hardly a coincidence that Knaus remarked during the championship presser afterwards that his entire team buckled down to get title number five. The team, the shop, the number that Knaus has built into a racing dynasty was flat called out two weeks ago. And, like awakening a sleeping giant, it rose up to smite its enemy.

If the visual aid of Johnson and Knaus’s above average emotion – they acted like they won title number one, not five – doesn’t convince anyone, Knaus confirmed to all the media that Ford’s remarks didn’t please him. And he left no doubt of his opinion when he stated, “I think our team is better than what they have at Gibbs.” Period.

Frankly, in terms of on-track performance, the No. 11 team had everything they needed to topple the No. 48. They won more races over the course of 2010. They took the trophy at Martinsville for the third consecutive time at a track that Johnson is accustomed to making a personal playground.

Where the No. 11 team messed up was in getting away from what worked for them in the regular season. They got away from simply winning races, and they did that by trying to play head games with a team that’s long ago mastered the art. Just as calling out RCR was a huge mistake, calling out Knaus is and was equally foolish. Trying to play head games when Harvick was among the competition was foolish. And trying to play head games when the team’s driver has proven anything but level-headed in the face of adversity was especially foolish. It was very clear at Phoenix, when the team pitted a race-winning car to fuel up and finish a safe 12th instead of a convincing podium result, that playing defense wasn’t a role the No. 11 squad was fully ready or able to embrace.

And “Sliced Bread?” His upward momentum was sliced to pieces, reduced to antics that one would expect of a youngster rather than a racing prodigy. Kyle Busch got karmic retribution, while Hamlin and Co. tried to play head games with the best in the business. They lost.

So Chad Knaus was absolutely right; Hendrick Motorsports and their team is better than what’s been assembled at Gibbs. For while the No. 48 team won a championship on Sunday in south Florida, Joe Gibbs Racing, if it’s even possible, lost a lot more.

And they have no one to thank for that but themselves.

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