Everything seemed in order for Denny Hamlin as Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 reached the last 50 laps.
The No.11 car picked up speed after dark. It rolled to the front of the field as friend Michael Jordan — yes, that Michael Jordan — strolled down pit row to watch the last portion of the race in a mob behind Hamlin’s pit. Come the last pit stop, Hamlin crew chief Darian Grubb decided to stay out instead of pit.
Then, the yellows started to fall and Hamlin wound up two new tires short of a Sprint Cup championship.
Hamlin helplessly watched Kevin Harvick, who took on completely fresh rubber on his last pit stop, storm by from 14th to first and fellow contender Ryan Newman do the same in futile chase of Harvick. Harvick won the race and the title. Newman finished second. Hamlin slumped to seventh in the race, third in the series.
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“Our car really came into its own as soon as it went dark,” Hamlin said. “I thought we had the best car, and we just struggled with restart speed. Kind of the theme of the year. We don’t have the all-out speed that those guys have and, with that, it put me in some tough spots on the 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. Obviously, we were sitting ducks as long as cautions kept coming.”
For the second time in five seasons, Hamlin came to Homestead with a chance to win the series title. That year, under the old Chase for the Cup format, Hamlin came to Homestead 15 points up on four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson and 46 points ahead of Harvick.
Hamlin got into the grass then the wall early in the race. A half-hour after the race, Hamlin found himself sitting in the Homestead media center, watching Johnson celebrate a fifth consecutive series title on the television screens while waiting for media questions.
Same place Sunday, but this time Harvick smiling on the televisions instead of Johnson.
“This is a little bit different because, when we had an early incident in 2010, it kind of damaged our car enough to where we couldn’t overcome that throughout the day,” Hamlin said. “I’m very proud of what we brought to the race track and were able to compete with, and they gave me some tools to try to win the race. Strategy is part of winning, and the strategy for us didn’t work out with what happens with the cautions.
“The race goes green, maybe things are, probably are, a lot different. But, it’s a part of racing, and you can’t predict those things.”
Newman injected a chuckle into the postrace dejection he shared with Hamlin when someone asked about Jordan’s appearance.
“I’ve been a basketball fan for a really long time,” Hamlin said. “He’s just a good friend that came to support a friend.”
Newman interrupted, “Did he bring you some underwear or anything?”
Hamlin laughed, “No, hard to fit in that.”
Like many raised in North Carolina, the heart of NASCAR country, the former Chicago Bulls star and current Charlotte Hornets owner is a big auto racing fan.
“We communicate on a weekly basis,” Hamlin continued. “When he came in the motor home earlier [Sunday], he brought a big ground with him and he’s talking about how he’s converted all these people into being race fans.
“Wish we could have been celebrating with him. I wish I could have had one ring to his six or so. But we’ll have to wait another year for that.”