- Associated Press - Monday, November 1, 2010

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Denny Hamlin wanted only to leave Talladega Superspeedway with Jimmie Johnson still in his sights in the tense race for the NASCAR championship.

Mission accomplished after a furious final push Sunday gave Hamlin a ninth-place finish _ just two spots behind the four-time defending series champion _ and left him just 14 points out of the lead with three races remaining in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

All in all it was a pretty solid result.

Yet the driver seemed disheartened as he dissected his day at the one track that posed the most risk in this thrilling three-man race for the title.

“It wasn’t very fun,” he lamented.

No, it wasn’t. But considering it could have been a disastrous day _ bad enough to end his championship chances on the spot _ he should have been ecstatic.

See, Hamlin gambled and went with the popular practice of racing at the back of the pack in an effort to avoid any unnecessary danger. The strategy has worked wonders at Daytona and Talladega over the years, where drivers take a lazy Sunday drive before turning on the jets for a final mad dash to the finish.

Because of his precarious points position _ Hamlin started the day just six behind Johnson _ he couldn’t risk a catastrophic crash and had to play it safe early in the race.

The plan backfired when a round of green-flag pit stops caused Hamlin to fall too far back from the pack. He was out of the draft, and dropping like a rock with zero power to stop his slide.

Hamlin was 15 seconds behind the leaders. Then 20. Then 30. Then nearly 40 and his rearview mirror showing the field hurtling toward him.

Strategies were discussed, including Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch’s offer to drop back and rescue Hamlin, but the team decided against the move. Michael Waltrip, a fellow Toyota driver, had a brief window to go get Hamlin, but that too didn’t materialize.

“In a way, you’re kind of thinking ‘Well, we’ll get the draft back,’” team president J.D. Gibbs said. “And then when we kind of realized, ‘You aren’t getting it,’ it was almost too late to send those guys back, because then they could go a lap down, too.”

Hamlin did fall a lap down, and the only help he could get was a promise from fellow Toyota driver David Reutimann to make a hole for Hamlin to slide into as the pack closed in on his stranded car. It worked, Hamlin fell into line, then had to ride around and hope cautions fell his way and he could get back on the lead lap.

When he did, it was game on.

He hooked up with Busch and sliced his way through traffic, even leading four laps. But time at the front can be short-lived at Talladega, and when Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus told his driver to get moving with 15 laps to go, Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon barreled to the lead.

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