LEMASTERS: Hamlin Left To Ponder What Might Have Been

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — As the burnouts began on the front stretch Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Denny Hamlin sat in his car and wondered what might have been.

He entered the race with a 15-point lead and left Miami with second place and 39 points behind. He had the championship in his grasp, all that he needed to end a four-year reign by Jimmie Johnson was one more consistent run.

Finish ahead of Johnson and the title — and the respect and admiration and money — was his. But that’s not the way it ended up.

A spin, damage to the right front and a car that was never quite right after put an end to Hamlin’s quest to unseat Johnson in the title fight. The fact that he qualified 37th for the season finale didn’t help.

“It was a fight,” a composed Hamlin said. “You know, you can kind of maybe contribute it to bad qualifying, but our car was really fast at the beginning. I mean, just unbelievably fast at the beginning, and I knew we had a car that could contend for a win, and obviously when we got in that incident on the back straightaway, it tore up the front and knocked the toe out and obviously, the car did not drive as well for the rest of the day.

“We just tried to patch it and work on it the best we could but just wasn’t the car that it was at the beginning. It’s just part of racing. There was a lot of circumstances in which we had an opportunity to win the championship. You know, by the numbers, fuel mileage was one contributor, factor. But it’s part of racing. Strategy is part of racing. It’s not just about the fastest car and best driver.”

Hamlin won eight races, tops in the series. He took the title battle to the last lap of the last race, and lost by a few.

“We did all we could do, and even if we had won the race today it wouldn’t have been good enough, but I’m still disappointed that we didn’t win the race,” Hamlin said.

Right after the race, on the team radio, Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford were already talking about 2011.

Apparently, that old adage about having to lose a title to win one took hold, and Hamlin was banking the hurt for use next season.

“Anybody would,” he said with conviction. “There’s 42 other race teams that have got work to do. For me it is, and obviously coming this close is tough, especially the small, little things that could have changed the outcome of this Chase in one lap.

“But that part of it hurts, but you’ve got to get better at all aspects and I feel like that’s where the 48 team has been strong over the last few years. They really have no weak spots.

“There are several parts of our car, there are several parts of our team that we can improve on, and that’s a good thing because as competitive as what we are right now, I know I need to get better in qualifying. I said that last year at this time. There’s lots of things that I could do to be better and there’s lots of things that we can do as a team to be better.

“So my focus, when Monday comes around, is what I need to do to execute all of those things.”

See ya next season, Jimmie. The 11 isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the 29. Looking forward to it.

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