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Hamlin's championship hopes take a hit

October 28, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Master control switch fails, dropping driver to fifth in the Chase standings

At 5:37 p.m. Sunday, Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 11 team buttoned up the rear of Denny Hamlin's hauler, and crew chief Darian Grubb gathered his 20-member crew -- very much in need of a pep talk -- for a post-race conference.

A $40 part had failed, all but obliterating the team's championship hopes on an afternoon when their resilience already had been tested.

What could he say?

"If it's not meant to be, it's not meant to be. We'll have our time. It's just that our time is not now."

--DENNY HAMLIN

"Sorry [to Denny]," was Grubb's first reaction.

"We've all got to step up our game. Little things like that take us out of contention. That's what we've got to fix. We cost him positions on pit road, and he made it up to us and drove his way back up through the field twice."

Dejected as he was, Hamlin wasn't blaming anyone or anything for his 33rd-place finish.

"I was thinking this was going to be one heck of a story," said Hamlin, having rebounded not once but twice from speeding penalties on pit road to become the race leader with 150 laps to go.

"You can't put any blame on anyone for this. If it's not meant to be, it's not meant to be. We'll have our time. It's just that our time is not now."

Hamlin dropped two places to fifth in the standings, but more importantly plummeted from 20 points out of first place to 49 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, a nearly insurmountable deficit with three races remaining in the 2012 season.

It's not the first time Hamlin has been frustrated late in a Chase. In 2010, a late-race fuel mileage snafu at Phoenix reduced his lead over Johnson to 15 points. Under the old scoring system, Johnson was able to surge past Hamlin in the final race of the season, leaving Hamlin the bridesmaid.

"It's little things that get us," Hamlin said. "I've been in these Chases for seven years and had my fair share of electrical and motor issues -- things like that. All I can do is drive my heart out."

Grubb said that Hamlin's undoing on Sunday was his car's master control switch.

When Hamlin first lost power, his dashboard lights began blinking.

"I was hoping that possibly, when I was down-shifting coming to pit road, I had somehow cycled through the ECU," Hamlin said. "I tried shutting it off to get that working again, but to no avail."

By the time his car stalled, mid-track on Lap 393, everything had gone black, and he had no choice but to steer the car to the garage.

It wasn't the first time Grubb, in his first season as Hamlin's crew chief, was left shaking his head, both at adversity and in amazement in the way his driver handled it.

An apparent miscalculation concerning pit-road speed initially got Hamlin in trouble.

"I thought it [might] be an issue when we chose that pit box," said Hamlin, who was in the eighth pit stall. "Darian assured me there was no way to speed on entry, but obviously, I think everybody underestimated how fast I could get to our box. Obviously, that was a problem, but nothing we didn't overcome in a short amount of time."

After Hamlin's second violation in the first 200 laps, Grubb ordered a simple solution.

"We just slowed down, just to be sure," Grubb said. "Three or four years ago, the same thing happened to Jimmie Johnson twice in one race. It's all electronic, and there's no beating it."

* Video: Pit-road speeding hurts Hamlin | $40 part ends Hamlin's run

Beyond that, Grubb was awed by Hamlin's performance and ability to wind his way through he field on the 0.526-mile track.

"I was thinking about how fast the car was and how good Denny was here," Grubb said. "It's fun to watch him go out there and just put on a show and drive the car to the front."

Grubb knows it's important to keep his team's spirits high. Where does his team go from here?

"We go for three more wins and see how it all shakes out," he said. "We don't wish bad luck on anybody, but obviously, [as proven] with us [Sunday], it can happen. So we're going to go out there and try to get three wins -- max points on those three weeks -- and see what happens from there."

Hamlin seems resigned that his championship hopes are through.

"We'll try to run the table and get a lot of wins," he said. "Just go out there, have fun, be relaxed and enjoy this awesome championship battle that's shaping up [between Johnson and Brad Keselowski]. It's a shame we can't be part of it."

For his part, Johnson isn't publicly ready to write off Hamlin.

"I'm not smiling. I'm not anything [like that]," Johnson said. "That's just one of those voodoo things you don't do in this sport.

"With three races left, anything can happen. You've got to play the game. You've got to run the race. We could have some mechanical issue, some electrical issue or an accident on the track. With three races left, there's a lot of laps to be run. I'm happy to be in my position, not Denny's, but it's hard to say he's out of it yet."