HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Denny Hamlin won when he had to, seizing victory on Nov. 10 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix to earn an 11th-hour ticket into Sunday's Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Despite his best efforts, Hamlin couldn't duplicate the feat accomplished in 2014 by Kevin Harvick, who won the last two races of the season to claim his only Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship to date.
Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 started in daylight, and Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota didn't respond. For the first two stages of the race, Hamlin, for the most part, was fourth among the four title contenders. After sunset, when Hamlin's Camry came to life, an extra pitstop to remove tape from the grille -- a measure to counteract a potential overheating issue -- proved more than Hamlin could overcome.
"I don't think I could have done a better job," Hamlin said following the event. "I don't think I could have. ... I didn't leave anything out there. So for the first half of the race, we just weren't fast enough, we weren't handling very good, and all of a sudden it went nighttime and we took off. And suddenly I perked up and got a little more and was thinking that we've got a chance.
"Then just didn't work out. Definitely, like I said last week, I was going to come in here and do the best I could and live with the result either way. I definitely feel like I couldn't have done anything different. Certainly we got a little aggressive there (with extra tape on the grille), and it cost us, but I mean, he (crew chief Chris Gabehart) also been really aggressive and won us races, too.
"It's just he's going for it. He saw an opportunity there to really add some speed to the car, and it just didn't work out."
SHORT-RUN SPEED IS NO HELP TO HARVICK IN LONG-RUN RACE
The Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway often is decided by a short run to the finish. That's was part of the game plan developed by driver Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers.
Unfortunately for the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team, the entire third stage was run without caution, and the final 101-lap green-flag run prevented Harvick from using the short-run speed built into his Ford.
Starting second at the beginning of the race, Harvick streaked ahead of polesitter Hamlin and led the first 20 laps before eventual race runner-up Martin Truex Jr. ran him down. After a restart on Lap 13, Harvick again went to the point and stayed out front for 13 laps but couldn't hold the position.
In the final green-flag run, Harvick's car faded after he was last to make his final green-flag pit stop, hoping for a caution that never came. Harvick finished fourth, but he was 14 seconds behind race winner and new Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch at the finish.
"On the restarts, I could do what I wanted to do, and I could hold them off for 15 or 20 laps right there, and, you know, this race has come down to that every year, so you kind of play towards that," Harvick said.
"And they (the other title contenders) were quite a bit better than us on the long run, but we had a really good car for those first 15 or 20 laps on the restarts and had a lot of speed. Just never got to try to race for it there with a caution."
AFTER WINNING ROOKIE TITLE, HEMRIC WILL REGROUP AT JR MOTORSPORTS
Sunday was bittersweet for Daniel Hemric.
After finishing 12th in his final run in the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, Hemric was crowned Sunoco Rookie of the Year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Next year, however, Hemric won't be driving in the Cup series, having been replaced in his RCR ride by two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick. Hemric will compete in 21 races for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series in 2020.
"Yeah, I'm really pumped up starting right to getting to work on that deal," Hemric said after the race Sunday. "It's kind of a breath of fresh air knowing I've got the opportunity to go back and ... having runs like tonight make me go into the offseason knowing I can compete and race at this level."
Hemric finished 25th in the final standings in his first season at NASCAR's top level.
"It's the little things when you have a season like we've had that get you over that emotional hump," he said. "I mean, I passed a seven-time champion (Jimmie Johnson) on the last lap of a 60-lap run at Homestead. Those are little victories you find in the light at the end of the tunnel in years like this."
--By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media.