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Published: Sunday, 11/14/2010

Hamlin grip on Cup lead less ironclad

AVONDALE, Ariz. - Carl Edwards marked the end of a 70-race losing streak by climbing into the grandstands at Phoenix International Raceway for a raucous celebration with the fans.

Roughly 50 feet away, Denny Hamlin sat in silence on the pit road wall, wondering how his ironclad grip on the Sprint Cup had been pried apart by fuel strategy.

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

He was in prime position to take a comfortable lead into next week's season finale by dominating Sunday's race at Phoenix. He led a race-high 190 laps and had four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson in trouble for much of the afternoon.

And when third-place driver Kevin 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, Edwards chased him down and Hamlin had to burn a ton of fuel trying 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 the 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 him around the track, urging him to conserve every 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," Johnson 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.

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 like a title-crushing penalty.

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 and won the race. He also won the Nationwide Series event on Saturday.



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