Coming into this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway, none of the eight Chase contenders could be assured of progressing to next week's title decider at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Not even Denny Hamlin, who was leading in the championship points standings and who also picked up pole position for the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 during Friday evening's qualifying.
It started well for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who led for the first 25 laps of the race itself and who looked well on the way to securing the sort of solid finish that he needed to ensure that he would be one of the final four driver competing for the 2014 championship at the winner-take-all season finale.
And then came the first round of pit stops, and to his horror Hamlin found that during his stop for a new set of tyres, the valve stem had been knocked off the right rear which was now going flat, forcing him to make a second unscheduled stop that dropped him down to 35th place. While he initially picked up a half dozen spots, the problems of running in dirty air so far back soon arrested his progress, and not long after he found himself lapped by race leader Kevin Harvick.
Hamlin got his lap back thanks to a 'lucky dog' free pass from a subsequent caution, but his situation didn't improve and it wasn't long before he was lapped for a second time. Fortunately a new flurry of yellows handed him a second free pass on lap 208, but he was still stuck far away from where he needed to be if he were to win one of the transfer spots.
"What a crazy day; you just think about everything that went on and you're like, 'It's just not meant to be,'" he admitted. "We struggled. We had good track position and we had that issue on pit road and it put us back and we got a lap down twice, lucky dog twice, and just battled."
Having come back from two near-death experiences, Hamlin and the #11 Joe Gibbs Racing crew led by crew chief Darian Grubb managed to find some sort of pace late in the race and started to make forward progress, finally putting him back into the top five by the time the chequered flag came out.
"We just kept working on it and getting our car better," said Hamlin. "Probably our saving grace was we definitely didn't have that strong of a car today but we had a strong car on restarts, and that kind of allowed us to be aggressive and pick up a handful of spots and then a caution would come out, we'd pit, get a little bit better tyres, then the guys that stayed out would make up a few more spots, and next thing you know we ended up finishing in the top five somehow, some way.
"No clue how it happened," he admitted. "It was a battle. You know, it says something that we were able to come back from a lap down twice, and this track is just so hard to pass on that we were able to get the lucky dogs at the right time and capitalise."
"Yeah, it was eventful for sure, but there never was any panic," he insisted. "You can't deem a favourite and an underdog because things happen that change throughout the entire day. I mean, you know, these races just don't go green from the start to the end and the fastest cars are always up front. We didn't have a top five car today, but through strategy and things like that, we got up to the top five."
"It feels so good to be in," contributed Grubb. "This is a huge relief after a stressful day. 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."
Having made it into the final four, it's perhaps not surprising that Hamlin is a big fan of the new Chase format being used for the play-offs this year.
"The people that outcry this system is bad is when their favourite driver doesn't make it," he said. "The system is fine. It's exciting. Every race is exciting. There's not been one boring race, and every race, it comes down to somebody on a restart or something. This is the best thing that's happened to this sport in a really long time. Just because your favourite driver don't make it, it could go the other way for them next year. Let's just leave this thing alone for a little while."
Having stared disaster in the face not just once but twice at Phoenix, Hamlin now finds himself going to next weekend's race at Homestead with a one in four chance of finally clinching what would be his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Having finished as runner up to Jimmie Johnson four years ago, what will it take for the JGR #11 to finally seal the deal this year?
"It's going to be whoever executes a flawless day is going to be the champion," said Hamlin. "I've had a one in three shot before in 2010, but this is so different with this format. You know you're up against three other guys and whoever comes out on top is going to be our champ.
"I feel pretty optimistic," he added, pointing out that he'd won at Homestead a year ago. "Obviously no one saw that win coming last year in 2013. We were a lot less competitive at the end of last year, and we popped up and won that race.
"It's just a track that suits me for some reason," he continued. "You know, it's wide, tyres wear out, and you get to really - if your car is working well - you can make up positions there. Track position is not crazy critical like it is at this racetrack.
"Love it, love the opportunity. We're on house money now, so let's go have fun!"
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