Late cautions doom Denny Hamlin in Sprint Cup title finale

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Once again, Denny Hamlin experienced championship heartbreak at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Four years after he lost the Sprint Cup title in the season finale to Jimmie Johnson, Hamlin battled hard but came up short with a seventh-place finish in today’s championship-deciding Ford Ecoboost 400.

For a while, it appeared that the Virginia native would be the one hoisting the Cup in the end. He was at the front of the field several times, and assumed the championship lead with 20 laps to go when he stayed on the track during a caution.

But two more yellows in the final 15 laps allowed Hamlin’s title rivals to catch up. With seven to go, Kevin Harvick took advantage of the four fresh tires that he got in the 20-to-go caution to take the race/title lead from Hamlin, and eventual runner-up Ryan Newman passed him for second before the final yellow came out with six laps left.

That set up the last restart with three to go, but Hamlin was unable to mount a challenge Harvick and Newman before fading out of the Top 5.

Afterwards, Hamlin was comforted by his crew, as well as basketball icon Michael Jordan, whose sponsors Hamlin through his Jordan Brand (credit to USA Today’s Jeff Gluck for the clip):

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Michael Jordan comforts buddy Denny Hamlin. #NASCAR

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His crew chief, Darian Grubb, took the blame after the call to leave Hamlin out did not work:

When he faced the press, Hamlin said the “last breaks” just didn’t go in his favor.

“I thought our car really came into its own as soon as it went dark, and I thought we had the best car, and we just struggled with restart speed,” he explained. “Kind of the theme of the year, just struggling with – we don’t have the all-out speed that those guys have, and with that, it put me in some tough spots on restarts.

“I gave up a position to Harvick there with 20-some laps to go, and Darian tried to make a call to make that back up and leave us out there on tires, and obviously we were sitting ducks as long as cautions kept coming. We were able to jump out and get the lead, you know, had a decent lead, and just the cautions didn’t go our way.”

Carrying a much looser demeanor than he did going into his last duel with Johnson for the 2010 title, Hamlin quickly moved into the Top 5 from eighth on the grid.

From there, he was able to stay in that bracket for the rest of the race with the help of a strong car and great pit work from his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing crew.

Hamlin had toiled with a relative lack of power compared to his Chase rivals, but tonight, it was clear that there were a few more ponies in his Toyota engine.

With that and his crew’s efforts in mind, Hamlin said that he was proud of what they were able to bring to Homestead and that he wouldn’t have done anything differently.

“We brought a car that was capable of winning,” he said. “I just don’t know how to express it enough. Sometimes, breaks go your way, sometimes they don’t…There’s not much else we could have done with the strategy that we played with the cautions that came out.

“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.”

Perhaps filled with peace of mind that he and the 11 camp gave it everything they had, Hamlin posted the following statements on his Twitter page this evening: