Denny Hamlin proud ... and hurting

11/21/2010 - NASCAR

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Denny Hamlin quietly walked into the media center moments after the most disappointing day of his life.

He went up to the stage and sat down with a blank stare, looking past everyone in the room. His mind was elsewhere, wondering what might have been.

The Sprint Cup title, which was his to lose when the day started, belonged to Jimmie Johnson again when the day ended.

The television monitors in the room were focused on Johnson as he prepared to exit his car for a postrace interview as the man who had just come from behind to win his fifth consecutive championship.

The media questions for Hamlin were delayed while everyone looked at the monitors to see what Johnson had to say and watch the No. 48 Chevy team celebrate.

Kevin Harvick, the other man who had a shot at the title when the Ford 400 started, was seated on the stage with Hamlin. Harvick was at ease, even smiling a little, leaning back and watching Johnson's joyous moment.

But Hamlin looked straight ahead, his elbows on the desk and his left hand covering his mouth, almost as if he was holding back a deep moan.

His eyes darted up to a monitor at times, seeing the happiest man at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the man who had taken what Hamlin so desperately wanted.

It had to hurt.

Hamlin's 15-point advantage over Johnson before the race was a 39-point deficit when the checkered flag waved. A 14th-place finish for Hamlin wasn't enough, not when Johnson finished second.

"Coming this close is tough knowing so many small, little things that could have changed the outcome," Hamlin said. "I guess I just need to get better."

His best was good enough to win a season-high eight races and overcome major knee surgery in March. It was enough to make him the points leader starting the final race of the Chase.

But it wasn't enough to overcome a damaged race car Sunday. An early accident sent Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota sliding through the backstretch grass.

It was all uphill from there.

"I knew we had a car that could win the race," Hamlin said. "The car was really fast, unbelievably fast. But the incident on the track tore up the front and knocked the toe out. We tried to patch it, but it wasn't the same car it was at the beginning."

The "incident" as Hamlin called it, came on Lap 24, when Hamlin and Greg Biffle made contact exiting Turn 2. Hamlin was on the inside of a three-wide situation with Biffle in the middle and Paul Menard up by the wall.

"The 16 [Biffle] just turned right down on me," Hamlin said into his radio.

Biffle didn't see it that way: "I was just trying to give the 98 [Menard] room outside," Biffle told his crew. "I don't know why [Hamlin] would be that tight on me when we're three wide."

Afterward, Hamlin said it was just wrong place, wrong time.

"No one was to blame," Hamlin said. "It got three wide at the last minute and there wasn't enough space. You could say it was a product of bad qualifying."

Hamlin started 37th, but won this race one year ago starting 38th. A championship wasn't on the line that day.

This day was different. Even with the splitter damage, Hamlin managed to move forward. He restarted 37th on Lap 28 and moved up to 17th by Lap 54.

"It was a fight," Hamlin said. "The car just wasn't lightning fast the way it was before."

But he kept fighting. And it looked as though he might overcome the early accident. With 90 laps to go, Hamlin was eighth and Johnson was 10th. Hamlin was back in the points lead.

But confusion on a pitting decision hurt Hamlin. Crew chief Mike Ford, who has done his share of trash talking the past two weeks, was indecisive about having Hamlin pit with 65 laps left.

"Stay out,'' Ford said. "No, pit, pit, pit!"

Hamlin already had passed the pit entrance. Now he was stuck on old tires when cars behind him pitted for fresh tires.

Hamlin fell back, but still had a chance until getting caught a lap down when a caution came out during green-flag pit stops.

Wrong place, wrong time again. Hamlin took a wave around, but he was 18th when the final restart came with 17 laps to go.

It was too late. Hamlin became only the third driver since 1975 to lose a Cup points lead in the last race of the season.

He felt all along this was the year he would end Johnson's dynasty.

"I thought they didn't show the strength they had in years past,'' Hamlin said of Johnson's team. "It opened the door for us and we stepped up our program."

But they came up one step short. Team owner and former NFL coach Joe Gibbs has been on both sides of championship battles in two sports. He was hoping for his fourth Cup crown.

"This is a huge disappointment," Gibbs said. "I know how hard it is for Denny, but I'm proud of our guys. They fought their guts out. This is a maturing process. And Denny and Mike, I feel they have a lot of good years in front of them."

As Hamlin walked down pit road after the race, the first person to talk to him was two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, Hamlin's former teammate.

"Tony has really helped me this year quite a bit,'' Hamlin said. "He's much older and wiser than his early years when he caused a bunch of ruckus. After the race he just gave me some words of encouragement. He's been there."

Hamlin was asked if later he'll be able to see how much he accomplished this season.

"I see it now," he said. "I don't have to wait. I knew before today that we have a lot to be proud of as a race team. And I know every year I've been in the Cup series, I've been better than I was the previous year.''

As Hamlin left the media center, some TV monitors still were showing highlights of the 48 team's celebration.

Hamlin never looked up. He had seen enough.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.