AVONDALE, Ariz. — Denny Hamlin had a championship within his sights before, four years ago when the Sprint Cup title was his to lose.
It slipped away over the final two races of the season, including a demoralizing defeat at Phoenix International Raceway. He arrived in Phoenix as the points leader and had Jimmie Johnson on the ropes as Hamlin led more than half the laps and appeared headed to the win.
Instead, he needed to make a late stop for fuel that took him out of contention for the victory.
The disappointment carried into the season finale the following week as Hamlin was flat and battled nerves on a day he could have claimed his first NASCAR championship. Instead, watched Johnson celebrate a fifth consecutive title.
Four seasons later, Hamlin said h e feels he’s more prepared for this opportunity even though the format has changed and he doesn’t believe his Joe Gibbs Racing team is as strong as it was in 2010.
Hamlin goes into Sunday’s race at Phoenix tied for the series points lead with Joey Logano and needing to finish only 11th or better to get into next week’s championship finale.
“We have a position where we can control our own destiny,” he said. “I feel like this year the pressure on our race team is a lot less than what it was in 2010. The expectations are a lot less from the media and the fans’ perspective.
“So with that, you just race a little bit looser, and I’ve been in this position before and nerves aren’t going to be an issue. I’ve done this tons of times, been part of a championship picture, but everyone’s got to do their part, including myself.”
Hamlin will start from the pole, with Chase for the Sprint Cup championship contenders Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Logano and Matt Kenseth right behind him. Down to eight drivers in the Chase field, there are four spots in next week’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway up for grabs.
A victory at Phoenix will earn a Chase driver an automatic berth into the championship race.
Hamlin likes his chances. Assuming he advances out of Phoenix, he’s the defending race winner at Homestead.
“If we can get to Homestead, I feel way more confident at that race track than what I do Phoenix,” he said. “This is what we were hoping for. I’m a believer we’re going to a great race track of mine.”
Elliott becomes NASCAR’s youngest champion at 18: In Avondale, Arizona, Chase Elliott has become the youngest champion in NASCAR history by wrapping up the Nationwide Series title Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway.
The 18-year-old rookie is the youngest driver to win a title in any of NASCAR’s three national series.
He clinched the championship for JR Motorsports with a fifth-place finish at Phoenix. His official celebration will have to wait until next week’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Brad Keselowski won the race with a pass of Kyle Busch after a restart on the two-lap overtime sprint to the finish. Busch led 187 of the 206 laps but was denied the victory because Keselowski was given the final chance to catch him after a caution with one lap remaining in regulation.
Rosberg wins Brazilian GP pole position: In Sao Paulo, Nico Rosberg edged Mercedes teammate and title rival Lewis Hamilton to take the pole for the Brazilian Grand Prix on Saturday.
Rosberg was fastest with a lap of 1 minute, 10.023 seconds, just 0.033 seconds ahead of Hamilton. Local favorite Felipe Massa was third and his Williams teammate Valtteri Bottas finished fourth.
Rosberg led Hamilton in all three practice sessions this weekend. He trails Hamilton by 24 points in the overall standings and needs to win in Brazil on Sunday to have a real shot at his first title. The championship can’t be decided at Interlagos because the race in Abu Dhabi later this month will be worth double points.