News & Media


Hamlin, Johnson happy to take finishes and run

October 15, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Shortly after climbing from his No. 11 Toyota following Saturday night's Bank of America 500, Denny Hamlin paused during a pit-road interview to try to get a closer look at a nearby television monitor.

It was displaying the updated Sprint Cup point standings. It showed Hamlin's second-place finish to race winner Clint Bowyer had enabled him to shave eight points off the Chase for the Sprint Cup lead held by Brad Keselowski, who finished 11th. It also showed that Jimmie Johnson, who finished third in the race and is second in the standings, had cut his deficit to the lead in half, from 14 points behind before the race to seven after it.

"I had to look at the big picture and try to keep the 2 [of Brad Keselowski] behind us, and the only way to do that was to save fuel."

--DENNY HAMLIN

In the end, that was all that mattered to Hamlin and Johnson. Neither got the win he really wanted, but both inched closer to Keselowski and the Chase lead -- mainly because Keselowski ran out of gas at one point half a lap before coming to pit road and they never did. To Hamlin and Johnson, that made that they couldn't race to the finish the way they had hoped to do much easier to digest.

* Video: Final Laps | Victory Lane | Post-Race Reaction

Both drivers had to run at less than full throttle during their last two runs to save fuel and ensure they would make it to the end without running out.

"It's so tough. It's frustrating because you want to go and go and go. I had such a good car, and to have [crew chief] Darian [Grubb] just tell me, 'Slow down, slow down, slow down,' it's tough," Hamlin said. "But it's good to finally have a fuel-mileage race go our way. I just wish we could go green and we wouldn't even have to deal with this. But it's just part of the game. At the end of the race, you have to decide: how fast do you want to go? Do you want to risk it all to try to win the race? Or do you look at the big picture?

"I had to look at the big picture and try to keep the 2 [of Keselowski] behind us, and the only way to do that was to save fuel."

Conserving fuel wasn't Johnson's only concern. He also fought back from a questionable mid-race call by crew chief Chad Knaus to change only two tires when everyone else took four, plus endured a tense moment when he was the middle of a three-wide sandwich between Hamlin and Greg Biffle on the restart following that pit stop.

"Those last two runs, I ran half-throttle," Johnson said. "I probably ran 80 laps saving fuel here at the end, just to put us in this position. And it's hard to start [saving] that early and watch the guys you're racing drive away. And then people come off pit road and are really fast and you're wondering if they're a concern or not. There are a lot of things to make you nervous out there."

In the end, Johnson was more than pleased to take his third-place finish and his improved position in the Chase standings.

"I didn't expect to get that many points on the 2 here, in my mind," Johnson said. "So it was a solid night, and we got more than I expected here."

He said the point in the race when he went from the lead to seventh in three laps following the two-tire stop and subsequent three-wide incident was not that big a deal, at least as it turned out. Again, he preferred to look at the big picture.

"I'm disappointed, but at the same time, we didn't have the ability to be in the game on a fuel-mileage race [previously] -- and now we do."

--JIMMIE JOHNSON

"We lost track position, and that hurt us," Johnson said. "I'm disappointed, but at the same time, we didn't have the ability to be in the game on a fuel-mileage race [previously] -- and now we do. So I've gotten better, the team, the car ... all of it's gotten better. We've made huge strides in the fuel-mileage department. That's the thing that I've feared the most from the 2 team, because they've been so good that we've just been bringing a knife to a gun fight in that department. Now I feel we're much closer."

* Press Pass: Johnson | Hamlin | Bowyer

Hamlin worried that he might have waited too long to make his move on Bowyer, thinking perhaps he saved more gas than he really needed to. But that was largely by design, as he said he was being careful to make certain he didn't run out of fuel and post the kind of finish that might have been disastrous to his championship hopes.

"I just did my best to make sure I was still in the ballgame," Hamlin said. "I just wanted to make sure I looked at the big picture. If I ran out of fuel, I would have just put myself right back where I was in the points [before the race], or maybe even further back. It was worth giving up the race win to be safe and just take this finish and move on.

"Once we get past Kansas, which is another X factor race track [because it was recently repaved], we go to some really strong race tracks for us. So we're in it. All I can say is that we'll be right there."

Johnson said he enjoyed that the top three Chase drivers ran up front with one another, jockeying for position, for much of the night. Keselowski led a race-high 139 laps, while Johnson led 53 and Hamlin 36. There were many stretches where they ran one-two-three in one order or another.

"To race with the 2 and the 11 and to be one-two-three on the track lap after lap after lap, this is cool," Johnson said. "This is the way you want to win the championship. I'm having a lot of fun doing it, and I know they're bringing their A game each and every week, and so are we.

"And on speed, it's tough to pick a favorite. I think it's going to boil down to who makes mistakes or if there is any bad luck that comes one of our ways during the course of the Chase."

Hamlin agreed.

"Everyone's got speed. And obviously those are the two guys we're really going to have to battle," Hamlin said. "All the cars are fast. That's why [Saturday night] was big. Had we won and those guys finished second and third, we would have made up a minute amount of points. We needed a night like this to get back in it and get closer to single digits [in the deficit to Keselowski], and now we're coming up to some great race tracks for us."