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Denny Hamlin's lead in Sprint Cup Chase shrinks after poor showing at Phoenix

Jimmie Johnson, center, and Kevin Harvick, back, got the benefit from Denny Hamlin’s late pit stop. They are in the closest three-way Sprint Cup points race heading to next week’s finale.

Associated Press

Jimmie Johnson, center, and Kevin Harvick, back, got the benefit from Denny Hamlin’s late pit stop. They are in the closest three-way Sprint Cup points race heading to next week’s finale.

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.

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

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

Hamlin dominated Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500. He led a race-high 190 laps and had four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson in trouble.

And when third-place Kevin Harvick was penalized, Hamlin looked set to take a big lead in pursuit of his first NASCAR title.

But cautions fell the wrong way for Hamlin, who had to burn fuel trying to preserve the win as Edwards chased him down. Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing crew knew he would be at least a dozen laps short on fuel, and crew chief Mike Ford called in the No. 11 Toyota for gas with 14 laps remaining.

Hamlin, second at the time, fell to 19th, and he had to drive like a madman to rally for 12th.

His crew waited for Johnson to make his fuel stop — Harvick's penalty gave him the chance to make an extra stop for gas — but Johnson never did. Crew chief Chad Knaus coaxed his driver, urging him to conserve every final drop.

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.

As for Johnson?

"We have one heck of a points race going to Miami and I'm pumped," he said. "I am so happy to put pressure on the No. 11 team. … 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."

Harvick seemed sunk when, after leaving pit road in fifth with 90 laps to go, he was called back by NASCAR for a loose lug nut. He dropped to 18th, but that extra chance to get gas turned out to be fortuitous.

Rallying to finish sixth was more than he could have hoped for after what seemed like a title-crushing penalty.

"We're just lucky," Harvick said. "I was pretty down, I thought, 'There it went.' We dodged one, for sure, and we've still got a chance next week. That's all we can ask for."

Lost in the commotion was Edwards' first win since the 2008 finale. It came on a rare "perfect weekend" in NASCAR — Edwards won the pole, led every practice and won the race. He also won Saturday's Nationwide series event.

"A win is very important to us. It's a very big accomplishment for us," he said. "I think it's something that we needed for our confidence."

Sprint Cup points

With one race to go. Only the top three drivers are still mathematically eligible in the Chase for the Championship.

Driver Pts. Back

Denny Hamlin 6,462—

Jimmie Johnson 6,447 15

Kevin Harvick 6,416 46

Carl Edwards 6,198 264

Matt Kenseth 6,151 311

Jeff Gordon 6,124 338

Kyle Busch 6,115 347

Greg Biffle 6,113 349

Tony Stewart 6,074 388

Kurt Busch 6,033 429

Clint Bowyer 6,028 434

Jeff Burton 5,958 504

Note: Points unofficial; NASCAR posts official standings Monday

Up next: Season finale

Ford 400, 1 p.m. Sunday, Homestead-Miami Speedway.

TV: ESPN

Denny Hamlin's lead in Sprint Cup Chase shrinks after poor showing at Phoenix 11/14/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 15, 2010 7:54am]
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