How Denny Hamlin missed out on the Cup title in 2010
Two races remained on the schedule as Denny Hamlin led the NASCAR Cup standings in 2010 – But the Gibbs driver ultimately missed out on the championship win
Denny Hamlin could become the eternal third-place finisher in NASCAR Cup history: He has finished third in the standings no less than three times in his career so far: in 2006, 2014 and 2021. But the Joe Gibbs Racing driver had his best chance to win the title in 2010, when he finished second behind Jimmie Johnson after two tragic final races. It’s worth taking a look at NASCAR history!
November 7, 2021 was a sunny Sunday in Fort Worth, Texas. The third-to-last race of the Cup season was on the schedule and three drivers still had a chance to win the title in what was then a twelve-car Chase: Johnson, Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Johnsin entered the third-to-last race of the 2010 season as the overall leader, but just 38 points separated the top-3.
It was the final year of the points system with big numbers: The winner got 185 points, while the runner-up was awarded 170 points. Down to sixth place, the points were awarded in increments of five. Up to tenth place, there were four-point increments, then three-point increments. There were also five bonus points for a lead lap and five bonus points for the most lead laps. Therefore, the 38 points separating the top-3 was virtually nothing.
The race at Texas Motor Speedway
Hamlin started the race from 30th on the grid, while Johnson finished 17th in qualifying and Harvick grabbed 26th. In a lively race, Greg Biffle led the early stages. There was an immediate shocking moment for Johnson at the first stop when a tire rolled into the infield. However, there was no penalty because the tire was catapulted out of the pits after contact with another car. During a later debris caution, Hamlin was held up in the pits and shuffled way down the order.
After 50 laps, Hamlin was 25th, while Johnson was sixth and Harvick was 10th. As the race progressed, the balance of power tipped: while Hamlin and Harvick were able to establish themselves in the top-5, Johnson had massive problems on the outside keeping up with the pace of the top drivers. This was Hamlin’s big chance to make a stab at the Hendrick driver. After 200 of 334 laps, Hamlin was fifth, Harvick fourth and Johnson 14th.
With 28 laps to go, Hamlin took the lead immediately after a debris caution and drove into Victory Lane at Texas – his eighth win of the 2010 season. Havrick finished sixth and Johnson finished ninth. As a result, Hamlin led the championship by 33 points over Johnson with two races to go. The final two races of the 2010 season were held at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami. With 33 points only a razor-thin lead, the Gibbs driver had to give his best at Arizona and Florida.
The drama of Phoenix and Homestead
The penultimate race of 2010 took place at Phoenix Raceway in Arizona. Carl Edwards grabbed the pole position and won the 312-lap race. Hamlin suffered a major setback in the title fight: The Gibbs driver had to pit again under green conditions late in the race and thus dropped out of the lead lap – previously he had led 190 race laps. Hamlin made it back to the lead lap but was unable to get back to the front.
While Johnson finished fifth and Harvick sixth, Hamlin was only classified twelfth. The Toyota driver retained the championship lead, but the top-3 moved even closer together ahead of the final race. Hamlin’s lead over Johnson was down to 15 points, while Harvick was 46 points behind in third. This set up the thriller for the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The calculation was simple: If Hamlin finished the race ahead of Johnson and Harvick, he would be the champion of the 2010 NASCAR Cup season. Kasey Kahne drove to pole position, Johnson secured sixth on the grid, Harvick was 28th and Hamlin had to start the race from 37th. The reason for Hamlin’s miserable qualifying was that he got too close to the wall on his fast lap. That’s why he couldn’t get the maximum out of his Gibbs Toyota.
The title slips out of Hamlin’s hands
In NASCAR, starting positions are hardly a deciding factor, which is why Hamlin still had every chance in the 267-lap race to fight his way back toward the top. However, his race to catch up came to a halt as early as lap 22: Hamlin collided with Greg Biffle, spun and skidded through the grass, damaging his front splitter. The title favorite was able to continue, but had to prove his comeback qualities.
Hamlin was back up to ninth by lap 170, battling Johnson and Harvick for the championship win. Hamlin blamed the poor result – he was even bumped back to 21st before the final restart – on the early accident with Biffle, which would have massively limited the pace of his Toyota. Edwards won the race, while Johnson finished second to claim his fifth title. Hamlin finished 14th and dropped to second in the overall standings.
In the end, he was 39 points behind Johnson. The latter clinched his fifth consecutive title in the Hendrick Chevrolet. It was Hamlin’s best overall result in the NASCAR Cup Series to date and the now 40-year-old has never been so close to winning the championship. Slowly but surely, Hamlin is running out of time to claim the Cup title. Will he make it or will he suffer the same fate as Mark Martin, who has finished second five times in his career?