Hamlin has 15 point lead heading into final NASCAR race

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) - Nobody would have been surprised if Denny Hamlin envisioned hoisting the Sprint Cup trophy as he led lap after lap around Phoenix International Raceway.

He was dominating Sunday's race, headed to at least a top-three finish and one more monstrous step toward ending Jimmie Johnson's four-year run as NASCAR champion.

Then it all backfired. Poor fuel mileage forced Hamlin to make a late pit stop that cost him his comfortable lead in the standings. Instead of taking a lead of almost 60 points over Johnson into next week's season finale, Hamlin finds himself clinging to a 15-point margin.

"It's tough to not be happy having the point lead going into the last race. But we were sitting pretty," Hamlin said.

Was he ever.

Hamlin led a race-high 190 laps, while Johnson and third-place driver Kevin Harvick couldn't get near him on the track. And when Harvick was penalized for a loose lug nut on a late stop, nothing seemed to be in the way of Hamlin's first career NASCAR title.

Then cautions didn't fall as they should have, and race winner Carl Edwards was closing fast on his bumper, forcing Hamlin to burn fuel as he tried to preserve the win. His Joe Gibbs Racing crew knew he was going to be at least a dozen laps short of making it to the finish on his last tank of gas, and crew chief Mike Ford called in the No. 11 Toyota for gas with 14 laps remaining.

Hamlin was in second place when he headed to pit road, with a nearly 60-point lead over Johnson. The pit stop dropped him to 19th, and he had to drive like a madman through the field trying to salvage his day.

His crew watched and waited for Johnson to make his fuel stop - Harvick's penalty had given him the opportunity to make an extra stop for gas - but Johnson never ducked onto pit road. Crew chief Chad Knaus coaxed his driver around the track, urging him to conserve every final drop.

It played out perfectly for everyone but Hamlin, whose rally still left him 12th. Johnson wound up fifth, Harvick was sixth and Hamlin's lead going into Homestead-Miami Speedway is a mere 15 points over Johnson. Harvick is a manageable 46 points out.

It couldn't have gone any worse for Hamlin, who completely outperformed the competition but had little to show for it at the end.

"I hate that it boils down to the final race," Hamlin said.

Not Johnson.

"We have one heck of a points race going to Miami and I'm pumped," he said. "I am so happy to put pressure on the No. 11 team. We're ready to race for this thing. I hope the pressure of us being on his heels really works on his mind throughout the course of the week. One race, winner take all, and it's going to be a hell of a show."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.