Entering the day with a 33-point lead in the standings, Denny Hamlin dominated Sunday’s race at the Phoenix International Raceway. However, when his No. 11 FedEx Toyota ran short on gas he not only lost the race, but lost his comfortable cushion in the Chase headed into the season finale next weekend in Homestead.

While Carl Edwards was celebrating his first Sprint Cup Series win since 2008, Hamlin was busy punching his dashboard and throwing a water bottle in frustration, Jimmie Johnson was smiling and talking a bit of trash, and Kevin Harvick was thanking luck and his crew for keeping him calm when it mattered most.

What it boils down to is going into next week’s race in Homestead, Hamlin maintains a 15 point lead over the four-time defending champion Johnson, with Harvick only 46 behind – the closest championship battle in Chase history.

With Hamlin dominating the race, a caution on Lap 223 brought the field to pit road. After charging to the front from deep in the field, Harvick left pit road in the fifth spot, but also left without one of his lug nuts. Forced to come back to pit road, the No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet restarted the race in 18th with only 84 laps to go.

The stop may have been devastating for Harvick, but a subsequent caution on Lap 235 changed the complexion of the race. While the leaders opted to stay out – Hamlin and Johnson included – those from ninth on back decided to hit pit road with 76 laps to go.

With Harvick among those that stopped and ten extra laps of fuel in his car, crew chief Gil Martin told his driver they would be able to make it to the end if the race stayed green while those ahead of him would have to pit. A potential disaster on the previous stop quickly turned into a bit of luck for the No. 29 team as they were able to ensure a run to the checkers.

“We’re just lucky to be honest with you,” Harvick, who finished sixth, said. “These guys on pit road, they do a great job and just made a mistake. I was pretty down and thought, ‘There it went.’ Richard (Childress, team owner) and Gil were just like, ‘Keep at it, you never know what’s going to happen.’ Then they told me that I could make it on gas and the car just didn’t handle very well in traffic. Once we got up towards the front, it was handling pretty good and the further towards the front that it got, the better the car got.”

Looking at the bigger picture, crew chief Chad Knaus knew the caution would allow for more breathing room in terms of gas mileage. Instructing his driver to start saving gas under the previous caution, Knaus and Johnson took a risk on running to the finish without stopping.

“With the fuel numbers that we had, we were going to be pretty close when we stopped with 88 to go,” Knaus said after the race. “As soon as we took off, I told Jimmie to go ahead and save fuel and start saving at that point. Obviously you can’t predict what’s going to happen, when the caution came out just a couple laps into it, that definitely helped us a lot and Jimmie saved a lot of fuel at that point.”

While Knaus and Johnson were planning on going the distance, Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford knew there was no way they could make it. Ford told his driver he would be 12 laps short of the checkered flag and would ultimately have to pit. At that point, saving fuel was not an option. Despite that knowledge, the team stayed out under the fifth and final caution of the day on Lap 235.

As a result, the No. 11 car hit pit road from the second spot with only 13 laps left in the race. Dropping back to 18th with nine laps to go, Hamlin did his best to make up the lost ground but could only get back to 12th.

“Well, we don’t know if it’s the final caution,” Hamlin said. “We could have made it. There were a ton of guys that made it that pitted at the same time we did. Usually we have the best fuel mileage. That part I just don’t understand. I can save fuel pretty well. But I was never alerted to save fuel. So I assumed that everyone was going to have to pit. I didn’t even think it was a question.”

One of those that pitted at the same time was Johnson. Typically not one of the best at conserving fuel, the defending champion was able to back off the throttle, losing spots at the end, but still managed to bring it home in the fifth spot and close the championship gap.
“I did anything I could to stay out of the throttle,” a relieved Johnson said. “Gave up a couple positions at the end, but driving to pit road I thought maybe I should have fought a little harder for those two spots because right now every point counts. Just a solid performance. We ran well all day long – our pit stops were phenomenal and kept us out of trouble a lot because of the great stops on pit road. We had to work whatever magic we could there at the end and saved fuel and got it done. We have one heck of a points race going to Miami. I’m pumped. I’m so happy to put pressure on that 11 (Denny Hamlin) team – we’re ready to race for this thing.”

Johnson may have been all smiles, but Hamlin was far from pleased with his performance. Disappointed at the team’s poor mileage, Hamlin was left frustrated at the end result.

“I wasn’t aware that anyone was going to try to stretch it and make it,” he said. “Mike didn’t make me aware that anyone was going to stretch it and make it so I went out there and ran as hard as I could. Unfortunately, our car didn’t have as good of fuel mileage as everyone else’s.”

Not only does this late-race development tighten the Chase to only 46 points between the three contenders, it also continues the head games and trash talk that has gone on among the three teams. One week after his team was called out by Mike Ford in their post-race press conference, Johnson put the pressure back on the No. 11 team headed into next week.

“I know what my mindset is and I hope that the pressure of us being on his heels really works on his mind throughout the course of the week, he and his crew,” Johnson said. “These guys better be on their toes. Not only do they have the No. 48 to worry about, but they have the No. 29 (Kevin Harvick) and it’s going to be a hell of a show.”

If Hamlin can finish second and lead the most laps or win next week’s race in Homestead, he will be the champion regardless of what Johnson and Harvick do. However, Sunday’s race proved nothing is set in stone and anything can change in a matter of laps.

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