Johnson pounces on Hamlin slide, Harvick penalty

Denny Hamlin’s race began with a slide through the grass and
ended in disappointment.

There was a moment when it looked as if Kevin Harvick had a shot
at winning the race – and maybe even the championship – but his
hopes were snuffed out by a NASCAR penalty.

And Jimmie Johnson was ready to pounce on his two championship
rivals’ mistakes, finishing second in Sunday’s season finale at
Homestead-Miami Speedway to win his fifth straight NASCAR Sprint
Cup series title.

While waiting for their postrace news conference to begin,
Harvick watched Johnson celebrate on a nearby television. Hamlin
stared off into space.

”You know, it’s so many turning points in this Chase where it
can go one way or the other or in anybody’s favor,” Hamlin said.
”Just think about all of the situations you wish you could go back
and change.”

Instead, nothing has changed: Johnson remains NASCAR’s champion,
and the No. 48 team its dominant force.

”Those guys put up a great fight, and when it’s that close,
it’s got to sting,” Johnson said. ”I respect those guys.”

Harvick recovered from a pit road speeding penalty to finish
third, but that wasn’t enough. Hamlin finished 14th after making
contact with Greg Biffle on lap 24 and sliding through the grass,
and it wasn’t enough to preserve the 15-point championship lead he
held going into the weekend.

”We just tried to patch it and work on it the best we could but
it just wasn’t the car that it was at the beginning,” Hamlin said.
”It’s just part of racing.”

Hamlin spent this week fending off some good-natured, but
pointed, verbal jabs from Johnson and Harvick – and didn’t seem to
enjoy it. Still, he insisted he wasn’t nervous until just before
the race started.

Then came the early accident with Biffle, which damaged the
front-end bodywork and sapped some speed from what had been a fast
race car.

”It looks like I was on the inside of him and somebody went
three wide on him right at the last minute, and he came down and
got into our right front,” Hamlin said. ”Nobody’s fault, at
all.”

Meanwhile, Harvick’s pit crew appeared to give him the race lead
– and a leg up in the championship – on a late round of pit stops.
But NASCAR penalized him for entering pit road too fast.

Harvick fumed over his in-car radio and didn’t back down when
asked about the penalty after the race, questioning the integrity
of NASCAR’s pit road speed monitoring system.

”I don’t think that penalty will ever settle in my stomach,”
Harvick said. ”When you read me off of my pit road times of 49.6,
49.4 50.8 and then 49.6, and there’s only a handful of (officials)
that get to see them, I won’t ever settle for that.”

NASCAR wasn’t the only target of Harvick’s ire after the
race.

Harvick collided with Kyle Busch in the late stages of the race,
sending Busch’s car into the wall on the frontstretch. Busch drove
back onto the track but his car caught on fire, and he had to stop
and get out.

”Just a guy that doesn’t have his head on straight,
apparently,” Busch said.

Harvick wasn’t happy with the way Busch, a teammate of Hamlin’s
at Joe Gibbs Racing, was treating him on the track.

”He just raced me like a clown all day.” Harvick said. ”Three
wide, on the back bumper, running into me. And I just had
enough.”

Hamlin snapped back at Harvick.

”Sounds like (how) your teammates raced me all day,” Hamlin
said.

Harvick got the last word.

”I just parked yours,” Harvick said.

Hamlin almost had to park his own car after making contact with
Biffle early in the race. He went sliding through the grass but
regained control of his car and managed not to slide back up into
traffic.

”Immediately when you’re spinning you think, ‘OK, it’s over,”’
Hamlin said. ”And you run a couple of laps and it’s like, ‘It’s
not terrible and maybe we can come back from it.”’

Hamlin’s crew made repairs during a long pit stop. While the car
was fast enough for him to eventually climb back into the top 10
and put some pressure on Johnson’s championship hopes, the timing
of the caution flag that came out after Harvick’s accident with
Busch essentially ended Hamlin’s championship chances.

”When that caution fell, it trapped us a lap down, and so they
stayed out and the cars at the back all came and got tires, so it
separated us,” Hamlin said. ”What was a straightaway (behind
Johnson and Harvick) turned into 15 spots when that caution flew,
and that really hurt us quite a bit. But we were lucky to be in
that position, where our car was banged up bad and we just could
not overcome that.”

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