AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Denny Hamlin had a championship within his sights before, four years ago when the Sprint Cup title was his to lose.
It slipped away over the final two races of the season, including a demoralizing defeat at Phoenix International Raceway. He arrived in Phoenix as the points leader and had Jimmie Johnson on the ropes as Hamlin led more than half the laps and appeared headed to the win.
Instead, he needed to make a late stop for fuel that took him out of contention for the victory. The disappointment carried into the season finale the following week as Hamlin was flat and battled nerves on a day he could have claimed his first NASCAR championship. Instead, watched Johnson celebrate a fifth consecutive title.
Four seasons later, Hamlin feels he’s more prepared for this opportunity even though the format has changed and he doesn’t believe his Joe Gibbs Racing team is as strong as it was in 2010.
Hamlin goes into Sunday’s race at Phoenix tied for the series points lead with Joey Logano and needing to finish only 11th or better to get into next week’s championship finale.
“We have a position where we can control our own destiny,” he said. “I feel like this year the pressure on our race team is a lot less than what it was in 2010. The expectations are a lot less from the media and the fans’ perspective.
“So with that, you just race a little bit looser, and I’ve been in this position before and nerves aren’t going to be an issue. I’ve done this tons of times, been part of a championship picture, but everyone’s got to do their part, including myself.”
Hamlin will start from the pole on Sunday, with Chase for the Sprint Cup championship contenders Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Logano and Matt Kenseth right behind him. Down to eight drivers in the Chase field, there are four spots in next week’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway up for grabs on Sunday.
A victory at Phoenix will earn a Chase driver an automatic berth into the championship race.
Hamlin likes his chances. Assuming he advances out of Phoenix, he’s the defending race winner at Homestead.
“If we can get to Homestead, I feel way more confident at that race track than what I do Phoenix,” he said. “This is what we were hoping for. I’m a believer we’re going to a great race track of mine.”
Some other things at Phoenix headed into the penultimate race of the season:
HARVICK’S TO LOSE: Harvick has been the class of the field at Phoenix, where he’s won three of the last four races in the desert and is the two-time defending winner of Sunday’s race.
He’s shown speed all weekend — he qualified third — and was fastest in Saturday’s first practice and second-fastest in the final session.
Harvick is last in the eight-driver Chase field, and is headed into Sunday believing he has to win to earn the automatic berth to Homestead.
“I think you need to win this weekend. I think it would leave a lot less in everybody else’s hands,” he said. “I think we are very capable of winning this race and we have been fortunate to have a lot of success here.”
DRIVERS ONLY: NASCAR called a Saturday morning meeting with crew chiefs and among the topics was a reminder that team members cannot get involved in confrontations between drivers.
The edict comes after four Hendrick Motorsports crew members were suspended for participating in a brawl last Sunday on pit road between Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski and their teams. The fight erupted when Kevin Harvick pushed Keselowski into the scrum, and both Gordon and Keselowski were bloodied.
No drivers were penalized by NASCAR.
Harvick has asked NASCAR to police crew member involvement and suggested drivers take their cars to an area where crew members can’t enter immediately after the race. Gordon doesn’t think NASCAR needs to go that far, but agreed crew members should stay out of post-race disagreements.
“There is nothing wrong with crew members being out there,” Gordon said. “But I think what their role is in that kind of situation is just back off, and let the drivers handle it.”
DOWN A FEW MEN: The fallout of last week’s brawl between Gordon and Keselowski is the suspension of three of Gordon’s crew members.
He’ll run the final two races of the year without mechanic Dwayne Doucette, engine tuner Jason Ingle and hauler driver and mechanic Dean Mozingo. Gordon said the suspended crew members have told him to go win the championship in their honor.
“In some ways it’s highly motivating because those guys are as passionate about what we have had this year as a team,” Gordon said. “They are sending me text messages, ‘Go get this thing done this weekend’ and ‘Do this for us.’
“Those guys were there to protect me. I believe 100 percent that they weren’t there to fight. They weren’t there to go after a driver. They were there to make sure I was safe. The only regret I have is that it got them involved and got them in this situation to be suspended.”
ETIQUETTE: As tempers have flared between drivers during the Chase, there’s been much discussion about a so-called on-track code. Many drivers have argued the give-and-take and accepted etiquette has been long forgotten.
But six-time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson said one driver still lives by the code: Tony Stewart.
“The guy on the track today that still races like that era of time is Tony Stewart,” said Johnson, who explained Stewart will move aside for him if he knows that Johnson has a faster car.
“It almost shocks me and I’m surprised that he pulls over and lets me go. Sometimes I almost run into the back of him because I don’t know if his car broke or what is going on. He still remembers and was raised in that environment and races that way.”
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