Gone was the look of confidence and the joy that NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader Denny Hamlin displayed after his win in the AAA Texas 500 on Nov. 7.
Instead, it was replaced with a look of repugnance, after watching his dominating performance take a backseat to Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick’s late-race fuel strategy payoff.
Hamlin, who led a race high 190 laps while Johnson failed to lead a lap and collect the extra five bonus points, now finds himself having to protect a small lead against the four-time champion who looks to have the chase format mastered.
Not only did Hamlin allow Johnson to close within an arms distance of winning his fifth championship, he also gave Kevin Harvick a second wind after pushing him back from being a serious threat. On lap 233 Robby Gordon spins out, bringing out the caution as the leaders head to pit road.
Kyle Busch beats Hamlin off pit road to grab the lead with 87 laps left in the race.
Johnson passes Harvick in the pits to take fourth, while Mike Ford tells Hamlin they're about 12-13 laps short on fuel.
Knowing from team radio chatter that Hamlin was not going to be able to make it to the finish without stopping again for fuel, Knaus began scheming with Johnson to save fuel with hopes of cutting into Hamlin’s point lead.
Knaus’s gamble paid off when Johnson started conserving fuel with 15 laps left, and the team was able to finish race in fifth, seven positions ahead of Hamlin.
More importantly Johnson was able to shave an additional 43 points with the gamble and put himself within 15 points instead of 58, had Hamlin also gambled and finished the race in second without running out of fuel.
On lap 288 Hamlin told his crew chief, "Don't let them short-pit us, Mike,” and two laps later Hamlin also begins saving fuel knowing that Ford had already told him earlier they would be 12-13 laps short.
Hamlin begin to drop even farther back from race leader Carl Edwards, and with 21 laps left in the race Hamlin’s deficit was 2.3 seconds.
Finally with 14 laps left in the race, Ford called Hamlin in for two tires and fuel which took him 7.6 seconds and put him a lap back.
It wasn’t until lap 301 when Hamlin would pass Edwards and get his lap back, with Johnson and Harvick running fifth and eight respectively.
Hamlin was quickly running out of time, and with only five laps left he was still outside the top-10 in 15th place, while Johnson was in serious conservation mode running in sixth and Harvick closing in from the seventh position.
By the time the checkered was thrown, Hamlin crossed the line in 12th, Johnson picked up a spot and finished fifth with Harvick right behind in sixth.
Now going back to the last round of pit stops on lap 225 when Ford told his driver they would be 12-13 laps short.
Why would Ford have Hamlin begin to save fuel on lap 291, only seven laps from his next stop on lap 298 already knowing they did not have enough fuel to finish the race?
Hamlin lost valuable time by slowing down to conserve fuel, along with losing positions which meant losing points in the process.
Ford should have brought his driver down pit lane on lap 291, instead of having him conserve fuel for seven laps especially when he already knew they would be making one more stop for fuel.
Hamlin was able to pick-up seven positions in 12 laps, and could have picked up another four or five spots, or possibly caught Johnson or Harvick had Ford not slowed him down and brought him in on lap 291 instead of lap 298.
Instead of the 15-point advantage over Johnson, and the 46-point advantage over Harvick.
With four more positions Hamlin would have a comfortable 58-point lead over Harvick, and a 27-point lead over Johnson which would have put more pressure on Johnson and Harvick to perform.
If Hamlin is going to hang on and win the championship, Ford also will have to walk the walk—and hope this time he's fast enough and smart enough to beat the crafty Knaus to the finish.
You have to wonder if Ford was listening to the radio chatter the same way Knaus was because those extra seven laps of having his driver run at full speed and picking up those extra points could be the deciding factor.