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Edwards wins, Hamlin's points lead shrinks
by Matt Taliaferro
Denny Hamlin said the strategy was to keep the points leader in his sights through the first half of the Chase and then turn it on in the second — and he’s done just that, having won two of the previous three heading into the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
And Hamlin was within 50 laps of making it three-for-four when the plan hit a snag. That snag came in two forms: Carl Edwards and fuel mileage.
Edwards, winless since the 2008 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, dueled door-to-door with Hamlin — who had led a race-high 190 laps to that point — for a number of laps before securing the top spot and driving off. That’s when, 40 laps from the finish, Concern No. 2 began creeping onto the radar of Hamlin’s No. 11 pit box.
The leaders had not hit pit road in nearly 50 laps, and trying to stretch fuel mileage another 40 miles was going to be tight. They needed a caution flag.
Unfortunately (poetically, almost) for Hamlin, the debris cautions he so vocally decried earlier in the season never came, and with a thin points advantage over seventh-place Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, who was running 12th, crew chief Mike Ford was forced to play it conservatively.
Not believing Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota could make it to the checkers, Ford called his driver down pit road with 14 laps remaining. Hamlin emerged 19th and quickly began picking off spots. However, the majority of the leaders rolled the dice, betting they had enough fuel to get them home — and it was a winning gamble.
Edwards held on for his 17th career Cup win, although Ryan Newman, Joey Logano and Greg Biffle were hot on his tracks until the finish.
And most notably, just behind them — finishing fifth and sixth, respectively — were Hamlin’s chief rivals, Johnson and Harvick. With Hamlin slicing through the field to finish 12th, his points advantage stands at 15 over Johnson and 46 over Harvick with one race remaining in the 2010 season.
And one week after Ford had trumpeted his team as the best on the circuit, his driver showed a mix of disappointment, worry and frustration that they couldn’t put a vice lock on the title.
"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."
The missed opportunity aside, Hamlin still heads to the season finale as the points leader, able to ignore what’s in his rear-view mirror.
"I won’t need a pep talk," he said of next week’s race. "Of course, I’m going to be disappointed for the next couple hours, but trust me, when I get home, I’m done with it. I’m going to move on and try how to figure out how to win next week. This is fuel for me."
Johnson ran half throttle for the final 10 laps to assure his No. 48 machine would make it the distance. Harvick, though, took advantage of a pit-road miscue that occurred with 88 laps to go. With the leaders — many getting what would prove to be their final stop — getting service under caution, Harvick’s crew left a lug nut off of his No. 29 Chevrolet. Forced to come back in, he fell from fifth to 19th on the restart with 83 laps to go.
When the race’s final caution was thrown four laps later, Harvick, along with Newman, Logano, and others, drove back onto pit road to top off the tanks, allowing them to run hard to the finish.
"I was pretty down and thought, ‘There it went,’" said Harvick of the missing lug nut. "Richard [Childress] and Gil [Martin, crew chief] were just like, ‘Keep at it, you never know what’s going to happen.’ Then they told me that I could make it on gas."
As for next weekend’s deciding race, Johnson said it best:
"A good day isn’t going to get it done [at Homestead]. You gotta have a great day. I know what my mindset is and I hope the pressure of us being on his [Hamlin’s] heels really works on his mind throughout the course of the week — he and his crew. Those guys better be on their toes.
"Not only do they have the 48 to worry about, but they have the 29 and [a] one-race, winner-take-all — it’s going to be one hell of a show."
Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattTaliaferro