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Denny Hamlin car at fuel disadvantage

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Sprint Cup points leader Denny Hamlin will be at a disadvantage if Sunday's Chase finale comes down to fuel mileage, the senior vice president for race operations at Joe Gibbs Racing said on Friday.

"Probably so, probably so," Jimmy Makar said before the first practice at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "It's not an excuse. It is what it is. We need to do more for our fuel mileage program."

Hamlin dominated last week's race at Phoenix International Raceway, only to finish 12th because he was seven to eight laps short on fuel mileage and had to pit with 14 laps remaining.

That allowed four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (15 points back) and Kevin Harvick (46 back) to stay in contention heading into the finale this weekend.

Hamlin's crew chief, Mike Ford, spent more than 20 minutes going over the situation with team owner Joe Gibbs after the race. Makar said the topic continued to be debated in the halls at JGR all week. Ford said the situation won't be any better this weekend, but deferred any other comments to others in the company.

Ford obviously was displeased.

"No, and he shouldn't be," Makar said. "If I'm the crew chief I want all the tools in my box to do anything I want. Fuel mileage racing is one of them. If you don't have it, you're handcuffing him."

The race at Homestead came down to fuel mileage as recently as 2008, when Matt Kenseth ran out of gas with four laps remaining, giving the lead and eventual win to Carl Edwards. And Edwards ran out of fuel as he crossed the finish line.

Makar said there's little that can be done at this point to make significant gains.

"We can take some chances that maybe other people will, but we could have an issue of engine failure," he said. "That is way more catastrophic than a fuel mileage race that may happen. This may be a fuel mileage race. It may not be. If you're going to go one way or the other you go on the chance it's not going to be a fuel mileage race."

Makar said changes were made by JGR engineers after Kyle Busch blew an engine at California. Those changes impacted fuel mileage more than was expected.

"It was way up from where it used to be," Makar said. "That should have been a red flag right off the get-go. Unfortunately, one of the teams had a new carburetor we had just built that was supposed to be so much better.

"Looking back at it, you say, 'OK, I see what the carburetor picked up and how much.' We were leaner than we should have been. The more we thought about it, the more we knew."

Makar said there are little things Ford and engineers can do to make slight gains in fuel mileage, but not without mechanical risks and potential sacrifices in speed. He added that the issue will be addressed during the offseason.

"Obviously, you can't just build something that is automatically going to get you fuel mileage," he said. "We built all these a long time ago. Some of it is the Toyota package, probably. None of the other teams are getting great fuel mileage, either. I'm not blaming Toyota. We're just working with a different package than the Chevrolets and Fords are. We seem to be struggling a little bit more than we have in the past.

"It could be a combination we have with the engine package at JGR. Lots of ifs on fuel mileage."

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