Monday, November 08, 2010
Move over, Jimmie: Denny Hamlin takes over the Sprint Cup points lead
Denny Hamlin takes over the Sprint Cup points lead from four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson by winning the AAA Texas 500.
Denny Hamlin shoots blanks from revolvers after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday.
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FORT WORTH, Texas -- One day, possibly very soon, what happened Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway will be viewed as the day NASCAR changed. That the reign of four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson all but ended with his team in upheaval.
Denny Hamlin took the throne doing what Johnson used to do -- he was bold and ruthless. Hamlin snaked past Matt Kenseth with a crossover move two laps from the finish to retake the lead and go on to win. As he celebrated, his rivals for the title faced questions.
Hamlin's reward was more than his series-high eighth win of the year. He grabbed the points lead from Johnson, who trails Hamlin by 33 points after placing ninth. Kevin Harvick is 59 points behind Hamlin after finishing sixth. No driver leading the points this late in the season has lost the title since 1992.
Hamlin's charge capped a madcap race that saw Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton scuffle on the backstretch, Kyle Busch give a NASCAR official an obscene gesture and Johnson's team change its pit crew in the middle of the race.
"Wow," Hamlin said afterward, unaware of all that.
As dramatic as Hamlin's race-winning move proved to be, it was the decision by crew chief Chad Knaus to replace Johnson's mistake-prone pit crew with Gordon's pit crew with about 140 laps left.
Hamlin's crew chief, Mike Ford, called the switch "a desperation move.
"They just took their team out of it," Ford said. "This is more about trying to win a championship for [Hendrick Motorsports] and not [Johnson's] team."
Something had to be done. Johnson lost seven positions on one pit stop and 10 on another because of slow stops by his crew, which has been suspect during the Chase. Johnson admitted he wasn't stunned by the change.
"They really put us in a bad position on the race track and kind of led to the bad result," Johnson said. "With everything on the line, we have to perform; we have to do our jobs."
Ford saw the tensions rise in Johnson's pits, which were next to Hamlin's pit.
"We saw them make mistakes; we saw those guys studying us real hard," Ford said. "When you put your focus on watching other people, you make mistakes. So I was glad to see that they are watching us, that means that they are chasing."
Knaus said he was unsure who would pit Johnson's car next week at Phoenix.
Such moves are not new but rare during a race. Already in the Chase, Harvick's pit crew was replaced by teammate Clint Bowyer's group and it helped Harvick gain spots throughout Sunday's race on pit road.
Harvick's hopes of gaining much more points, though, ended less than 20 laps from the finish when he bounced off the wall.
"Just killed it guys," Harvick radioed his team.
He would gain one spot the rest of the race, aided by a restart with four laps to go. Yet, he lost 21 points to the lead.
"It's not a momentum killer," said Harvick's crew chief, Gil Martin. "Two races to go ... we're there. We're not going to give up."
Hamlin doesn't plan on giving Harvick or Johnson any hope these final two weekends.
"We're on the cusp of trying to get our first championship, and as long as we keep doing what we've been doing, we should be OK," Hamlin said. "I'm going to race at Phoenix as if I'm 33 [points] behind. I'm not going to be conservative, having the lead. I'm going to want to stretch that out before we get to Homestead. That's ... my mindset."
Gordon and Burton had different mindsets. They wrecked under caution. They hit before the caution came out and Gordon moved up to Burton's car to show his displeasure. Burton went to acknowledge him and turned left into Gordon, wrecking both.
They met in the backstretch. Gordon shoved Burton before they clutched and grabbed each other as series officials separated them.
"He deserved a lot more than that," Gordon said. "I certainly wanted to show him how upset I was, and I'm not ashamed of anything I did."
Burton said he didn't blame Gordon for his reaction.
Busch was apologetic for his actions afterward. NASCAR penalized him for speeding on pit road. As he was held a lap on pit road, Busch gave a series official multiple obscene gestures -- including one shown live by a camera ESPN had inside his car -- to earn a two-lap penalty.
Hamlin had no such worries Sunday.
"My goal was to be one of the most mentally tough guys behind the wheel and that means when things don't go your way, you figure out a way to make it a positive," Hamlin said.
He did so, just as Johnson used to do. Just as Johnson led the points this late in the season, now Hamlin is in that spot and two weeks away from his first Cup title.