Monday, October 29, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Breakdown costs Hamlin shot at Cup

MARTINSVILLE - We've all been there. Driving along, feeling pretty good, and then something just ... breaks.

Once the initial shock subsides and we ease the car to the shoulder, a new fear arises: Just how much is this going to cost us?

For Denny Hamlin on Sunday, the price could not have been higher. He lost any hope for a Sprint Cup title.

"One of these days it's going to be our time," Hamlin said. "It's just not right now."

Hamlin's day ended with him stepping out of his car into a sea of photographers and television cameramen -- a common occurrence for him at Martinsville Speedway. But nobody shook up beer cans or handed him a trophy.

Instead, he glumly answered questions about an electrical problem that dropped him to a 33rd-place finish and all but eliminated him for the points chase.

Already 20 points behind Brad Keselowski entering the day, Hamlin plummeted to 49 points back of race winner and new leader Jimmie Johnson. He trails Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne now, too -- a helpless place to be, given that Kahne all but declared himself out of the championship hunt after Sunday's race.

Crew chief Darian Grubb said a $40 part called a master switch went bad with a little more than 100 laps to go. Hamlin reported his gauges going crazy, colors flashing and then, ultimately, going dark.

What played out on the track was the excruciating scene of man losing his battle with machine.

Hamlin was running third when the problem first arose. He fell off the pace and dropped to seventh, then seemed to get a momentary turbo boost before again losing speed.

"I shut it off and tried to get that working again with no luck," Hamlin said. "It's just something that we couldn't control."

The struggle worsened until, finally, Hamlin coasted to a stop along the front straightaway to bring out the caution on lap 393 of 500.

The great shame is that it happened here, where he's always been so dominant. A four-time Martinsville winner, Hamlin also came armed with the services of Grubb, a Floyd native who spurred Tony Stewart to victory here last fall with a series of savvy pit calls.

This day figured to be the turning point for Hamlin - just not in the direction it wound up going.

As he drove the pace laps before the green flag dropped, Hamlin called the race a "must-win" on his radio. Survival would have been the better goal.

Even before the power failure, Hamlin had to shake off two major gaffes of his own doing. Officials twice caught him driving too fast entering pit road and forced him to go to the back of the field.

"Nothing we couldn't overcome," he said.

Hamlin proved it. Both times, he fought his way back - and made it look easy. Hamlin's ability to navigate traffic here is second to nobody's, and that includes the certified Martinsville maestro Johnson.

But as we were reminded once again, driving skill composes just a fraction of the NASCAR championship equation. Avoiding catastrophe holds much greater importance. Hamlin needed only to look inside his own race shop for proof of that.

A month ago, Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch visited Martinsville to promote this race. Busch didn't make the chase this year, largely because of the kinds of things Hamlin experienced on Sunday.

"It's all stuff," Busch said that day. "Just stuff. I broke a shock mount, but Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano didn't. I broke a rotor, but Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano didn't."

Well, now Denny Hamlin has.

There's no solution this year to what happened to Hamlin, but Busch did have an interesting proposal for how to prevent it in the future. He suggested that during the final 10 races, NASCAR should tally chase points independent of the other 31 competitors. So if you finished first among chase racers, you'd get 12 points; if you finished last among chase racers, you'd get one. Whether you outran the Travis Kvapils of the world would be irrelevant.

This would render rotten luck less punitive and theoretically keep more drivers in contention longer.

An interesting concept, but no help to Hamlin. He knew the deal coming in, and he knows his new reality as he pulls out of town and heads to Texas.

"Just have fun -- that's all I can do," Hamlin said. "Just go out there and be relaxed and enjoy this championship battle that's shaping up. It's a shame we can't be a part of it."

It is. All because of a $40 part.

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