Edwards wins while Hamlin’s big lead is wiped out

Nobody would have been surprised if Denny Hamlin envisioned
hoisting the Sprint Cup trophy as he led lap after lap around
Phoenix International Raceway.

He was dominating Sunday’s race, headed to at least a top-three
finish and one more monstrous step toward ending Jimmie Johnson’s
four-year run as NASCAR champion.

Then it all backfired. Poor fuel mileage forced Hamlin to make a
late pit stop that cost him his comfortable lead in the standings.
Instead of taking a lead of almost 60 points over Johnson into next
week’s season finale, Hamlin finds himself clinging to a 15-point
margin.

”It’s tough to not be happy having the point lead going into
the last race. But we were sitting pretty,” Hamlin said.

Was he ever.

Hamlin led a race-high 190 laps, while Johnson and third-place
driver Kevin Harvick couldn’t get near him on the track. And when
Harvick was penalized for a loose lug nut on a late stop, nothing
seemed to be in the way of Hamlin’s first career NASCAR title.

Then cautions didn’t fall as they should have, and race winner
Carl Edwards was closing fast on his bumper, forcing Hamlin to burn
fuel as he tried to preserve the win. His Joe Gibbs Racing crew
knew he was going to be at least a dozen laps short of making it to
the finish on his last tank of gas, and crew chief Mike Ford called
in the No. 11 Toyota for gas with 14 laps remaining.

Hamlin was in second place when he headed to pit road, with a
nearly 60-point lead over Johnson. The pit stop dropped him to
19th, and he had to drive like a madman through the field trying to
salvage his day.

His crew watched and waited for Johnson to make his fuel stop –
Harvick’s penalty had given him the opportunity to make an extra
stop for gas – but Johnson never ducked onto pit road. Crew chief
Chad Knaus coaxed his driver around the track, urging him to
conserve every final drop.

It played out perfectly for everyone but Hamlin, whose rally
still left him 12th. Johnson wound up fifth, Harvick was sixth and
Hamlin’s lead going into Homestead-Miami Speedway is a mere 15
points over Johnson. Harvick is a manageable 46 points out.

”Everybody made it on fuel, is that what you are telling me?”
Hamlin asked as he crossed the finish line.

”I know. That was ugly,” Ford replied. ”That’s something
we’ve definitely got to work on.”

”What do we got to work on? I don’t understand,” the
frustrated driver replied.

”Fuel mileage,” Ford responded. ”That was awful.”

It couldn’t have gone any worse for Hamlin, who completely
outperformed the competition but had little to show for it at the
end.

”I hate that it boils down to the final race,” Hamlin
said.

Not Johnson.

”We have one heck of a points race going to Miami and I’m
pumped,” he said. ”I am so happy to put pressure on the No. 11
team. We’re ready to race for this thing. I hope the pressure of us
being on his heels really works on his mind throughout the course
of the week. One race, winner take all, and it’s going to be a hell
of a show.”

A week after Knaus benched his pit crew in the middle of
Hamlin’s win at Texas, the champions were riding high after
stealing one in Phoenix. They were clearly off their game – Johnson
had won the last three Chase for the Sprint Cup championship races
at Phoenix – and never contended Sunday.

But as Ford huddled with car owner Joe Gibbs, and crew members
packed up their equipment in silence, Knaus reveled in the final
results just a few feet away.

Johnson, meanwhile, lounged on a patio outside the press room.
He didn’t join Hamlin on the podium, as is routine, because he
wasn’t interested in what Hamlin had to say.

Hamlin’s face said it all, though.

”He didn’t go out of his way to say `Hi’ on his way out, so I
can imagine he wasn’t in a good mood,” Johnson joked.

No, he wasn’t, and it was a far cry from the celebration Johnson
and Harvick had after the gut-wrenching turn of events.

Harvick seemed sunk when, after leaving pit road in fifth after
a caution with 90 laps to go, he was called back by NASCAR for a
loose lug nut. It dropped him to 18th, but gave him the chance to
make an extra stop for gas that Hamlin and Johnson didn’t get.

Rallying to finish sixth was more than he could have hoped for
after what seemed to be a title-crushing penalty.

”We’re just lucky,” Harvick said. ”I was pretty down. I
thought, `There it went.’ We dodged one, for sure, and we’ve still
got a chance next week. That’s all we can ask for.”

Lost in the commotion of the title race was Edwards’ first win
since the 2008 season finale. He ended that year as the popular
pick to unseat Johnson, but endured a miserable 2009 and went
almost two full years without a win.

His breakthrough came on a rare ”perfect weekend” in NASCAR –
Edwards won the pole, led every practice session and won the race,
snapping a 70-race losing streak. Edwards also won the Nationwide
Series event on Saturday.

”A win is very important to us. It’s a very big accomplishment
for us,” he said. ”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.

”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 be in the All-Star Race next season, to have that
energy going forward, all those things are good.”

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