Crunching numbers: A fitting finale?

November, 16, 2010

When asked after Sunday's Phoenix race what went wrong, Denny Hamlin replied, "We were short on fuel so we had to stop."

Hey, at least he kept his sense of humor.

Or maybe those were the words of a man who's going into the season finale in Homestead with a mindset that he's let his championship get away, despite having a 15-point lead. That's at least what his body language said when he got out of his car Sunday. He looked like a man who just had his title taken away from him.

"I did everything I was supposed to do today," Hamlin said after the race. "Things didn't work out for me."

This is what concerns me, the woe-is-me attitude that leads to him saying things like "I did my job." If Hamlin is going to win a championship, those thoughts stayed in Phoenix as he flew out after the race, and the focus turns towards a track where he won last year despite starting 38th.

Well, now we find out if we're looking at Denny Hamlin, the championship-level driver, or if it's Denny Hamlin, a guy who could win an admirable eight races, but couldn't outduel the best when the cards were all on the table.

My thoughts, culled from my observations and thoughts on life in general, is that I think Hamlin's up to the task. Strangely, it was another race at Phoenix that jumps to my mind, the spring race there earlier this year.

Hamlin, fresh off his knee surgery, refused to get out of a wrecked race car, and just turned laps to support his team, not yielding to relief driver Casey Mears. That was a 30th-place finish, but a championship run. With that being said, I expect Hamlin to have another championship run at Homestead.

Now, on with the post-Phoenix stats!

Sweet 15

All of this comes down to 15 points, as little as three spots on the racetrack, or maybe just simply the difference between first and second. Well, those 15 points mark the third-closest points Chase going into the finale race since NASCAR went to the modern points system in 1975. The closest? Richard Petty came back from two points behind Darrell Waltrip in 1979 and Dale Earnhardt held on with a six-point lead in 1990.

The fourth-closest was in 2004, when Kurt Busch led, who else, Jimmie Johnson, by 18 points going into the finale. Busch survived a loose wheel to finish eight points ahead of Johnson in the closest championship fight we've seen.

The next year, Johnson also entered the finale second in points, this time behind Joe Gibbs Racing's Tony Stewart, but wrecked out halfway through the race and finished 40th.

Trivia break: Who won the title in the second-closest points battle since 1975?

Drought Ends In Desert

Clever, eh? That's all my own work.

Carl Edwards won nine races in 2008, a series-high in victories for that season. The next year, he failed to win. This year, he went 34 straight winless races before Phoenix, in which he started from the pole, and passed the dominant car, Denny Hamlin, during the final green-flag run.

That, paired with Greg Biffle's two wins this season, have all come with the new Ford engine, proving that Roush Fenway Racing could possibly be a force to be reckoned with next season. Behind the three top Chase contenders, we have Carl Edwards in fourth and Matt Kenseth in fifth.

Furthermore, Edwards became the fifth driver to snap a 70-race winless streak this season, as Edwards' streak was exactly at 70 races.

Trivia break: Which driver broke the longest losing streak this season?

Coming Up Dry

What, more desert-related puns? Hey, cut me some slack, there's only one race left.

I don't know if you noticed, but Denny Hamlin was pretty good on Sunday, but then didn't win the race. In fact, his 190 laps led were the most all-time at Phoenix for a driver not to win. List time!

Trivia break: Who holds the records for most laps led in a Phoenix race?

Trivia Break Answers

1.) Alan Kulwicki edged Bill Elliott by 10 points in 1992.

2.) Kevin Harvick snapped a 115-race winless streak at Talladega in the Spring.

3.) Dale Earnhardt led 262 of 312 laps in 1990.

Matt Willis | email

ESPN Staff Writer
Matt Willis has been a studio researcher at ESPN since 2006, working on "NASCAR Now" and "SportsCenter," among other shows. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked on ICTV, on shows such as "Ya Think You Know Sports?" and "Sports Final." He also was a member of the IC Comedy Club and figures about half of the jokes he makes in his column are actually funny.



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