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It's not the first time that Denny Hamlin has come agonisingly close to clinching his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. He finished in third place in the championship in his first full-time season in 2006, and was right in the running all the way to the season finale in 2010 as well only to be ultimately pipped to the title that year by Jimmie Johnson.

"You know, this is the third time around that I've had an opportunity to win a championship," Hamlin said. "But each one has been different, and this has by far been our best effort as far as going out there and trying to get it done."

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This year he came even closer to achieving his dream, as he led the Ford EcoBoost 400 for 50 laps in total during the way, and which he was still heading with just eight laps to go between him and the race win that would hand him the championship.

It's at that point that a season-defining decision was made by crew chief Darian Grubb to keep the #11 Joe Gibbs Racing car out on track while his three championship opponents all came down pit road for fresh tyres. Joey Logano was undone by a jack problem, Kevin Harvick fell back to 12th place by taking a full set of four tyres, while Ryan Newman looked to have made the canniest call of all, taking the restart right behind Hamlin after a two-tyre call.

In the end, Harvick's call proved to be the right one as he flew to the lead at the next restart and went on to win the race. On his now-badly worn tyres, Hamlin sank to seventh place at the line and the title was gone for yet another season. "When we were on older tyres at the end compared to those guys we were just a sitting duck," he admitted.

"Championship effort, it wasn't for a lack of trying - I thought we had a better car than those guys," said Hamlin. "Darian made the decision to leave us out there on tyres ... He made a call to try to win the race for us and things just didn't work out. If the race goes green, we very easily could be talking about this in victory lane, but it didn't.

"It just didn't work out for us. With all of those cautions it just allowed all of those guys to close back up and it was kind of all she wrote for us," he added. "We had the best pit crew all day and I would have liked to have raced those guys on even tyres, but we just felt the track position was going to mean a little more. We didn't count on all those restarts at the end to allow those guys to close back up on us. That's just part of it and part of the breaks.

"It's just one of those things," he sighed. "Sometimes the cautions fall your way and sometimes they don't. We had a great car on the long run, really improved on the short run all day ... We definitely gave ourselves a shot and things were looking really good for us [but] those cautions just really, really hurt us."

"Hindsight is 20-20," said Grubb. "It's the wrong call. But, at the time it was the perfect call. We were able to get out there and get the lead. We had, I think, 17 laps to go. We were walking away from them and the next closest guy with tyres was in seventh, I believe, so we had it wrapped up there and then two quick cautions are what killed us.

"Then the guys at the in-between that pitted, between the guys with us and tyres," he pointed out. "It just killed us. But, I'm very proud of the team. Everybody hung in there. I made that call, and I knew some guys were going to be aggressive. And of course the #31 was, he did the two tyres. I thought we could beat him straight up, but I couldn't predict the #4.

"It's over and done with now," he added. "We're going to fight for next year."

Hamlin himself had appeared so confident coming into the race - which he had won last year, the only driver among the final four competing for the title to have found their way to victory lane Homestead n the past - that dealing with the last minute reversal of fortune was understandably difficult.

"Disappointment obviously," he said when asked what his feelings were as be climbed out of the car on pit road. "Knowing that for the latter part of the race we had the best car and just we needed -- those cautions at the end just killed us ... "Things didn't work out our way and they very easily could have worked out our way, but they didn't and gave a championship effort today. That's all we can ask for.

"For me there's not one thing I would have done different," he insisted. "We brought a car that was capable of winning [but] sometimes breaks go your way, sometimes they don't. They just didn't go our way.

"I think we overachieved greatly by being here, and we haven't had the speed to compete for race wins all year, and we did today, on the race that really mattered - just came up short," he summed up. "We'll keep fighting. This is a good effort from us today and it's good to see the winner [of the race] win the championship."

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