For a large part of Sunday’s elimination race at Phoenix International Raceway, Denny Hamlin looked to be headed straight for the exit doors of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, as he has in the two previous Chase rounds, scratched and clawed his way into a position to advance in NASCAR’s playoff.
It happened once again in Sunday’s high-stakes final race of the Chase Eliminator Round, where Hamlin twice rallied from a lap down to finish fifth and reap the reward of getting to compete for the Sprint Cup Series championship with Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman in next Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Article continues below ...
"What a crazy day," said Hamlin, who entered Sunday’s penultimate race of 2014 tied for the points lead with Logano. "You just think about everything that went on and you’re like, ‘It’s just not meant to be.’ Then you have to just keep fighting and keep fighting. Can’t thank this FedEx Ground crew enough for continuing to just battle. Now we’re in it. … This is a good week to go to Greenbrier and relax and get ready for a championship weekend in Miami."
Starting from the pole, Hamlin led the opening 24 laps of Sunday’s showdown in the Valley of the Sun, and was running fourth when the first caution flag waved on Lap 32.
Hamlin left pit road in fourth but had to make a second stop under the caution because of a flat right-rear tire resulting from a valve-stem issue on the first stop.
Restarting 36th, Hamlin was later lapped by Harvick, only to get back on the lead lap courtesy of a Lucky Dog, and then be lapped again by the eventual race winner.
Finally, courtesy of a Lucky Dog with 106 laps to go, Hamlin returned to the lead lap for good, but was mired in 21st place. Through a combination of solid pit strategy and improved handling on his car, he began climbing toward the front and was fifth on a restart with 69 laps go.
In the end, a fifth-place finish was all the Chesterfield, Va., native and his No. 11 Toyota team needed to be one of the four championship finalists heading into the winner-take-all championship race in South Florida.
"This is a huge relief after a stressful day," crew chief Darian Grubb said. "We’re glad it’s over and we were able to make it in there. We had a really good test at Homestead, and we won there last year. Feel like we have a lot of confidence going into there, so we’re going to go in and fight, fight, fight."
Hamlin, who is actually a winner of two of the past five races at Homestead, has recently said on more than one occasion that he believed the 1.5-mile track would play to his advantage if he made it into this year’s Championship Round.
Now having done so, he’s eager to get back there and go for broke in pursuit of his first Sprint Cup championship — one that narrowly eluded him at Homestead in 2010.
"I told you all before the Chase started that I feel better about winning Homestead than Martinsville (where he’s a four-time winner), and after the test we had there two weeks ago, I still believe that," Hamlin said. "I’m ready to go."
VIDEO: Denny Hamlin talks about surviving the Chase Eliminator Round and heading to Homestead in search of a title