Commentary

Hamlin laments one that got away

Updated: December 6, 2010, 3:47 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- The final "thank you" barely had fallen from Jimmie Johnson's lips Friday night when Denny Hamlin, hanging out in an interview room adjacent to the Wynn ballroom where NASCAR's season-ending banquet was being held, turned and asked "Is it over?"

Yes, it was over.

And Hamlin was gone.

Nobody wanted to get out of Las Vegas faster than the Joe Gibbs Racing driver who squandered a 15-point lead in the Chase finale to give Johnson his fifth straight title. Nobody wanted to be in Sin City less all week than Hamlin, who smiled about as often as I hit the jackpot on the slot machines.

He was simply miserable.

"Being here for a couple of days celebrating really sucks," Hamlin said.

The banquet (stunk) the most, as Hamlin had to watch highlights of his mistakes in the final race and listen to comedian Frank Caliendo give the top 10 excuses Hamlin had for losing the title during a David Letterman impersonation.

Among the funnier lines, "I got lost in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s eyes; At least Kyle Busch thinks I'm No. 1. That's what he was doing with his finger, right?; Had nightmares ever since I gave my cell phone number to Brett Favre."

Hamlin didn't think much of anything was funny in Vegas. He didn't party nearly as hard as he normally would in one of his favorite cities and he didn't hang around to celebrate with Johnson as Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart did until the wee hours of Saturday morning after the banquet.

When Hamlin talked, invariably the fuel mileage situation that cost him a victory and ultimately the championship in the next-to-last race at Phoenix came up.

"I don't feel like we got outdrove, I don't feel like Jimmie was just a better driver," Hamlin said. "It's just the strategy went bad for us and kept us from winning. We did a good job of stepping up. It's just unfortunately the ball went foul instead of going fair and a home run at the end."

Championship owner Rick Hendrick understood Hamlin's sour mood completely. He used to lament having to sit in the banquet audience as Dale Earnhardt won four championships during a five-year span at Richard Childress Motorsports.

"It's tough," Hendrick said. "I used to come up here in the Earnhardt era and think, 'We're never going to beat them.'"

Now Hamlin and everyone else wonders whether they can beat Hendrick, who has won 10 of the past 16 titles.

"It stings, for sure, but for me it's such motivation to go out there and be the one that takes it," Hamlin said. "It's become the same every year. I think everyone wants change. I want a change, and I want to be the one that forces that change."

There are two schools of thought on what coming so close will do to Hamlin. He could continue to sulk in the hangover of not winning and take a step or two backward, or he could elevate his game to an even higher level.

Anyone who saw the way he dealt with the pain after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his left knee in March, the way he turned adversity into a positive and inspired his team, has to believe this experience will make him stronger.

"The more I learn about Denny Hamlin the more I realize that he is a very, very good competitor," Carl Edwards said. "Whatever he takes from this, whatever pain he's going through right now, he'll apply that in the right way. I think he's going to be more and more dangerous from all of this.

"He's really that good."

Hamlin is that good, but this easily could be a step backwards as it was for Johnson after he fell eight points short of beating Kurt Busch in 2004.

Remember, Johnson finished fifth the following year. It wasn't until after a falling out with crew chief Chad Knaus that ended with Hendrick's famous "milk and cookies" speech that the best team in NASCAR history got on a roll.

Johnson understands what Hamlin is going through.

"I know in '04 it hurt so bad to sit down on the floor [of the banquet] and watch the 97 team," Johnson said. "They earned it. They did everything right, but I felt like that was our championship. That really stung. It made me stronger. I didn't necessarily see it in '05, but obviously in '06 we came back and got our championship run going.

"These lessons only are going to make the team stronger. We may have really pissed him off and he's going to come back stronger next year."

Everyone handles losing in different ways, and for Hamlin this was almost like grieving a death in the family. For Kevin Harvick, who finished a close third, it was just the opposite. He acted more like we're used to seeing Hamlin in Vegas, burning the midnight oil and hamming it up at every turn.

"After you are around it for a while you understand the sun is going to come up tomorrow," said Harvick, who welcomed the sun on at least one morning after a festive night. "You use it as great motivation to try to make yourself better, and try to analyze the situations we felt cost you the most points.

"So there's no reason to be down. [Hamlin] shouldn't be down. He had a great year."

[+] EnlargeDenny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson
AP Photo/J Pat CarterDenny Hamlin, left, says he's determined to be the one to end Jimmie Johnson's championship reign.

But Hamlin is down. Everyone could see it.

"I'm sure Mike Ford [is down] as well every time he hears that recording of 'Now they've got to come beat us,'" four-time champion Jeff Gordon said with a laugh of the words used by Hamlin's crew chief.

Gordon was referring to the video highlight of Ford's radio comment after Hamlin won at Texas to put Johnson in the position of having to come from behind over the final two races to win the title for the first time during his reign.

"Be careful what you say," Gordon added with a smile. "You know what? I think those guys, once they get back to the racetrack, they're going to be tough. They're a good team and a championship-caliber team. They learned some lessons.

"If they're smart, they'll learn how to utilize those lessons and make them better in the coming years."

That may take a while. Hamlin normally watches replays of every race as soon as he gets home. He hasn't watched the Homestead race, in which he spun through the infield grass early after going three-wide with Greg Biffle and Paul Menard, putting him in a hole from which he never recovered.

And he has no plans to watch it.

"No way," Hamlin said.

But Hamlin has seen the highlights of the move often enough, including on the banquet's big screen, to know the mistake wasn't as much of a blunder on his part as many have said.

"After the race and when we went back and listened on the radio I heard two-wide," Hamlin said. "It was the 98 [Menard] that came up high at the last minute, forced the 16 [Biffle] to move down. I thought it was two-wide and moved up into the 16. I didn't know I was three-wide at that moment."

Hamlin has been somewhat oblivious to everything since leaving Homestead. He went into hiding for the week before the banquet, talking to as few people as possible, knowing he would have to relive the anguish at Vegas.

But perhaps dealing with the questions this past week was a good thing. Perhaps it forced Hamlin to deal with the pain now so he could move on.

"I'm glad to kind of get it over with," Hamlin said. "Monday, when I get home, it's going to be about '11 and how can I win a championship."

Yes, the 2010 season is over.

And soon for Hamlin, the painful memories of it will be, too.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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