Johnson Swipes Momentum From Hamlin
Reid Spencer - SportingNews.com
Nov 15, 2010
Just when you thought they were down and out …
Jimmie Johnson and his indestructible No. 48 team clawed their way back into the Sprint Cup championship conversation.
They did it with an all-or-nothing gamble, but a gamble where the risk was carefully calculated. And they took advantage of Denny Hamlin's No. 11 team, which was asleep at the switch in its failure to anticipate that others might be able to stretch their fuel to the end of Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Johnson's fifth-place finish at Phoenix may prove as significant and decisive as any of his 19 victories in previous Chase races. The fifth-place run allowed Johnson to trim a 33-point deficit to Hamlin entering the Phoenix race to 15 points entering next Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
More important, Johnson dealt a gut shot to Hamlin's psyche.
Hamlin came to Phoenix overflowing with confidence, fresh from a Texas victory that had rocketed him into the Chase lead. Ready to apply the coup de grace to Johnson and third-place Kevin Harvick, Hamlin drove relentlessly from his 17th-place starting position to the front of the field.
He dominated the bulk of the race, leading 190 laps before polesitter Carl Edwards regained the top spot on Lap 266 of 312.
The combination of poor fuel mileage and a lack of foresight, however, turned the afternoon against Hamlin. After a pit stop under caution on Lap 224, there was no conversation between Ford and Hamlin about saving fuel.
"There were a ton of guys that made it that pitted at the same time we did," Hamlin said. "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."
In contrast, with 88 laps left, Johnson began saving fuel immediately after stopping on Lap 224. With his hopes for a fifth straight championship in the balance, Johnson went the distance, as did race winner Edwards and a handful of others. Hamlin had to settle for 12th after short-pitting for fuel and two tires on Lap 298.
Hamlin vowed to put Phoenix behind him as soon as he left the track, but when he appeared in the media center after the race, he was crushed.
"I feel like we've been the best car over this Chase, and we may not win it," was his most telling comment.
There's no question that, of Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick, Hamlin has had the edge in speed throughout the Chase. But the realization that the fastest car might not win the title seemed to hit Hamlin with unbridled ferocity after Sunday's race.
Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the No. 48 team have found the winning formula for the past four seasons. This year, the formula is different. Knaus bolstered his effort at Texas with a midrace exchange of pit crews with the sidelined No. 24 Chevrolet of Jeff Gordon.
Gordon's crew, which has been more consistent all season, pitted Johnson's Chevy in Phoenix and will do so again at Homestead.
Johnson, who has arrived at Homestead with a lead in each of his four championship seasons, relishes the chance to win a come-from-behind title.
"You know, it would probably be received better than the ones in the past, with the runaway show we've had on a couple of them," Johnson said. "I don't care how I win it. However we win it, that's cool.
"I would love to come back and win from behind and eliminate that stat, because that seems to be the only thing that everyone talks about right now."
There's little doubt that, come Sunday, Johnson and Knaus will find the approach that gives them the best chance to win the championship. That's the way they're wired.
Asked whether he was nervous gambling on fuel with the championship on the line, Knaus said simply, "It's on the line every day."
If Hamlin is to hold his lead and dethrone Johnson, it would behoove him and Ford to be a lot more cognizant of the strategic possibilities than they were at Phoenix.
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