Throughout the entire Chase, Denny Hamlin’s game plan was to be patient and conservative until making it through Talladega, then let loose. One race after closing the championship gap with Jimmie Johnson, Hamlin stayed true to his word, scoring the win in Texas and taking the points lead with only two races remaining.
With his car coming to life as the sun set, Hamlin was aggressive on late-race restarts and held off a last-lap charge from Matt Kenseth to score the season sweep in Texas and earn his second win of the 2010 Chase.
The victory moves Hamlin 33 points ahead of Johnson, who finished ninth, and 59 points ahead of third place Kevin Harvick, who came home sixth.
“I don't get excited anymore,” Hamlin said. “I just don't let things get to me much anymore and just race relaxed. I'm really not nervous going into races. I was more nervous at the very first Chase race in New Hampshire getting ready to start that race than I was from then to this point.
“For me 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 okay.”
While the championship picture saw a shakeup, it was hardly the only major storyline on the day. Kyle Busch was held two laps after flipping off a NASCAR official from inside his car, Jeff Burton wrecked Jeff Gordon under caution, which led to a physical confrontation on the track and Chad Knaus pulled his pit crew after poor stops, using Gordon’s over-the-wall guys instead.
Sunday’s race in Fort Worth got off to a relatively calm start with Greg Biffle taking command of the race as Hamlin worked his way from his 30th starting spot and Harvick looking to improve from 26th.
In the early stages of the race, it was not so much problems on the race track the three title contenders had to overcome, but instead struggles on pit road.
It appeared Johnson lost a tire on the first round of stops, which would have resulted in a penalty from NASCAR. However, the No. 98 of Paul Menard hit the tire, thus no penalty. Early on, Hamlin was forced to back up before leaving his stall, losing spots in the process. Later in the race, Harvick took four tires while others took just two, leading him – and team owner Richard Childress – to question the call by crew chief Gil Martin.
For Johnson and the No. 48 team however, pit road would not only be a struggle, it was cause for major concern. The team lost spots on pit road all day and struggled with 16-second stops under green flag conditions. With Hamlin’s crew pitted just ahead of them knocking off sub-12 second stops, crew chief Chad Knaus decided it was time for a change.
With teammate Jeff Gordon out of contention – more on that later – Knaus replaced his over-the-wall crew with the seven guys from Gordon’s No. 24 team, who had been having stellar stops all day. The No. 48 crew went to work disassembling Gordon’s pit box, while the No. 24 crew prepared to pit the title contender for the remainder of the race.
“Ultimately it’s my decision, obviously, but we needed to do something,” Knaus said. “This is a team and the 24/48 shop has always operated as a team and that’s how we see it. It’s sad that we have to do that, but for the interest of Hendrick Motorsports, it’s what we have to do, you have to do that stuff. It’s not uncommon; we’ve seen it before. We’ll get home, try to get it fixed up and get our boys back.”
Following the race, Knaus told reporters he was unsure whether or not the regular No. 48 guys would be back to work pitting Johnson’s car next week in Phoenix.
“I’m hoping we get back with the 48 guys and get everybody’s confidence up and get this thing going in the right direction,” he said. “It’s not what we want to do, but sometimes things have to be adjusted a little bit and we had to do that today.”
“I knew the possibility existed and at this point in the game; you can't have feelings,” Johnson said of the mid-race pit crew change. “You have to go out and try to win the championship. And if somebody's feelings got hurt, that's too bad. We're here to win a championship and we've got to do everything we can."
For Hamlin’s crew chief Mike Ford, the move was a desperate one that occurred after Knaus and his guys took their off their own game and focused on the No. 11 team.
“It's something that -- I won't say that race team -- that Jimmie, Chad and Rick (Hendrick, team owner) needed to do if they wanted to win a championship because they just took their team out of it,” Ford said. “They removed their team. Their team got them to this point and they pulled them out, so this is more about trying to win a championship for the company and not the team.”
Now in a position he has not been in since 2005, Johnson has a lot more to worry about than where to put his next championship trophy. Going into the final two races without the point lead, Johnson knows it is up to him and his crew to get the job done over the next two weeks if they want to earn their unprecedented fifth straight title.
“Well the last four years we have been in a different position,” Johnson said. “I have lost plenty of championships in the past and this is racing and it doesn’t come easy and you are not going to get what you want every single year and every single weekend. I can promise you this. I am trying as hard as I can; I know my team is, and we are doing everything we can. Thirty-three points back is not where we want to be but we are going to work to get back on top.”
While Harvick was able to come home in the sixth spot, his day was not without adversity either. The Richard Childress Racing driver questioned crew chief Gil Martin’s call for four tires early in the going, but was able to methodically work his way into contention.
As the shadows grew and the sun set, Harvick’s car loosened up too much for his liking. Struggling to keep the car under him, Harvick tagged the wall with less than 15 laps to go. After the contact, Harvick keyed the radio, saying, “Killed it, just killed it guys…I think we’re in big trouble.”
Luckily, a caution with seven laps to go allowed Harvick and a host of others behind him to hit pit road. Restarting ninth, the first car with fresh tires, he took advantage of a struggling Greg Biffle to jump three spots and remain in contention for the title.
“It was actually a pretty mellow day,” Harvick said. “We had a good car. I didn't think we'd be anywhere in the hunt to tell you the truth after practice and they did a great job getting the car ready. When it got dark, our Shell-Pennzoil Chevrolet, we just got really loose and we got in the wall, twice actually. They fixed that and everything went as good as it could.”
It may have been a mellow day for Harvick, but for Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton, it was anything but mellow.
Just after a restart on Lap 157, Busch was battling in the middle of the pack when he spun in Turn 1 while running 15th. Pitting under caution for two tires and repairs, Busch attempted to stay on the lead lap and beat the pace car off pit road before coming in to change the other two tires. NASCAR deemed the driver of the No. 18 intentionally sped off pit road to maintain his position and held him one lap as a result.
Already unhappy with NASCAR following what he saw as a poor call at the end of Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, Busch showed his frustration by flipping off the NASCAR official standing in front of his car – also showing it on national television thanks to an in-car camera. As a result, NASCAR held the No. 18 for an additional two laps for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“I’m the only one to stand up to them, but they tell me how far to stand up,” Busch said on the radio.
Crew chief Dave Rogers pleaded with his driver to settle down and remain focused, screaming, “We work too hard for this. You’re costing us.”
Busch would go on to finish 32nd, two laps down.
“I don’t know if the camera inside the car did or not, but it’s just unfortunate,” Busch said after the race. “It’s something that I lost my cool in what I was doing and I had no worries about a camera inside the car at that point.”
While Busch lost his cool with NASCAR, Jeff Gordon lost his cool with Jeff Burton and put on quite a show in true ‘Have at it, boys’ fashion.
In a strange turn of events during a caution for Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 191, Burton and Gordon were involved in a separate incident from the one that brought out the caution. Upset with Burton for coming down on him at the exit of Turn 4, Gordon drove beside the No. 31 under caution. In turn, Burton turned down into Gordon, hooking his right rear and turning him hard into the outside wall.
With two completely wrecked race cars, Gordon exited his car and walked down the track towards Burton and his wrecked car.
As he neared, Gordon lunged at Burton and a shoving match ensued. At one point Gordon tried to put Burton in a head-lock and NASCAR officials jumped in to separate the two, before they climbed into the same ambulance to ride to the infield care center.
“Of all the people out there, I never thought it would happen with Jeff Burton. I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for him, but I certainly lost a lot of respect today,” Gordon said. “I was walking towards him and I was going through all the scenarios in my mind, luckily I had a long walk down there to him, because I thought I did about the least amount that I wanted to do. I wanted to show him how upset I was, but I wanted to do a whole lot more than that. I held back and I just am still in disbelief.”
Burton not only accepted blame for the incident, but also said he fully expected Gordon to be mad.
"Coming off of turn four, he (Jeff Gordon) drove underneath me,” Burton said. “I should have let him go and I didn't. The caution came out and he pulled up next to me to tell me he was upset at me and he went on. Then I went to pull up next to him to acknowledge him, to say he was right and I turned left and he was turning left and we just hung up. When we hung, off we went. I honestly don't know what happened. It was my fault; 100 percent it was my fault. It was like once we got together, I couldn't get off of him. I didn't mean to hit him. I meant to pull up to him and tell him he was right because he was upset with me for what happened off of turn four. I should have let him go. You can't see off of there right but you can't see over there right now. You don't to be side-by-side. I don't blame him for being for mad. I'd have been mad too."
As the 2010 season winds down, things are only appearing to get crazier. Two races remain and the points battle is still anyone’s for the taking. All three of the contenders have had solid finishes at Phoenix and Homestead, but it seems Hamlin has emerged as the man to beat. While these three are battling each other for the championship, if the last few weeks are any indication, we may see more "Have at it, boys" come into play.