Before he climbed from his car, Denny Hamlin sat parked in front of his No. 11 team's hauler and mouthed two words: "Damn it."
What was setting up to be one of the greatest drives of Hamlin's NASCAR career turned out to be all for naught. Hamlin had seemingly conquered his weakest track – Dover International Speedway – on the day when he needed to the most, as evidenced by him leading three different times for 39 laps and running second for much of the day.
In the end, though, the race became a fuel mileage game. Hamlin didn't have enough gas to make it – his team wasn't even close – and he pitted late, settling for an eight-place result instead of a sure top-three finish.
"It's so frustrating," he said afterward. "It's like all the hard work you do doesn't pay off."
When Hamlin got out of the car, he stood off to the side and stared at his No. 11 machine for nearly five minutes. Eventually, crew chief Darian Grubb arrived and the two had a brief discussion about what had happened. Grubb patted Hamlin on the back, and driver and crew chief looked at the car in silence.
The Toyota Racing Development motors – which are used by Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing team – don't produce very good fuel mileage when optimized for horsepower. It's a conscious decision made by the team to choose speed over gas mileage, but it can hurt on days like Sunday.
"I cannot control all this fuel mileage shit," Hamlin said. "I just gotta drive the race car as fast as I can drive it for 400 laps, and wherever I am on the (scoring) pylon is indicative of how I did, how our fuel mileage is, how the crew was and how fast the car is. Today, we got knocked down because fuel mileage is our weak spot."
Hamlin shrugged off his deficit to Sprint Cup Series points leader Brad Keselowski – he's third in the standings, down by 16 points with seven races left – and said his competitors "are not going to beat us on the track."
"I mean, that's plain and simple," Hamlin said. "We're just too fast right now. I feel like everything is going well. It's just these strategy games and the way these cautions are falling, it's ill-timed. These cautions fly when some people can and some people can't make it. It's messing everything up."
On the positive side, Hamlin said he wasn't overly discouraged because "we ran our ass off today." And if someone had offered an eighth-place finish at his worst track before the Chase, he probably would have taken it.
But knowing how close he came to something much better was difficult to accept.
"I drove as hard as I could for 400 laps, and I look up and it's like, 'Why are we eighth?'" he said. "That part of it is frustrating."