Denny Hamlin lamented early contact with Greg Biffle that ended up compromising his chances of winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title at Homestead.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was unable to defend his championship lead in the season finale, getting off to a poor start during Friday's qualifying where he almost hit the wall on his first flying lap, and ended up only 37th in the grid.
Despite gaining ground quickly in the opening laps, Hamlin's charge to the front was halted when he made contact with Roush Fenway's Biffle on lap 24, damaging his car's bodywork and the geometry of the front suspension.
"It was a fight," said Hamlin. "You can kind of maybe attribute it to bad qualifying, but our car was really fast at the beginning – just unbelievably fast at the beginning – and I knew we had a car that could contend for a win, and obviously when we got in that incident on the back straightaway, it tore up the front and knocked the toe out and the car did not drive as well for the rest of the day.
"We just tried to patch it and work on it the best we could but it just wasn't the car that it was at the beginning. It's just part of racing... We'll just keep fighting and get them next year."
Hamlin impressively made it back inside the top 10 and eventually drove by Jimmie Johnson at one point, putting himself back in position to win the title. However, his pace was not as consistent at the end, plus the timing of his final pit stop was not ideal as he went a lap down and only got it back in the final caution, caused by Kevin Harvick making contact with Hamlin's teammate Kyle Busch.
"Well, we didn't lose it right at the very end," Hamlin said. "The emotions were very high at the beginning in the first couple of runs when we were really making up a lot of ground and obviously when we got in that incident, immediately when you're spinning you think, 'OK, it's over' and you run a couple of laps and it's like, 'It's not terrible and maybe we can come back from it.'
"Then we had a good pit stop, put us in front of that 48 [Johnson] and actually outran them [during] that one run and spaced ourselves from him, but that was the absolute best the car could be for the conditions of the car with it being knocked around.
"That was the best-case scenario. We came back in, we were actually ahead of them. We had a less-than-stellar pit stop that put us back about four spots behind him and he never looked back."
Hamlin admitted to having felt the pressure before the race started, as Sunday was the first time he had been able to contend for a NASCAR series title in the final race of the season.
"I'll be honest with you, I was not nervous at any point until about an hour before the race," said Hamlin. "That's really when it kind of hit me.
"There are so many turning points in this Chase where it can go one way or the other or in anybody's favor. Just think about all of the situations you wish you could go back and change; right now it's more thinking about that."
Despite the disappointment of missing on his best shot at NASCAR's top trophy, Hamlin says he still has a lot to be proud about this season. He took a series-high eight wins and came close to delivering Toyota's first title in the Sprint Cup, the Japanese manufacturer having already won in the Nationwide and Truck series.
Hamlin says there is plenty to build on for 2011 but reckons his team still has to improve in some areas, notably fuel mileage, which arguably prevented him from arriving at Homestead with a safer points cushion after losing a possible win last week at Phoenix.
"I knew before this weekend happened that we had a lot to be proud of as a race team," said Hamlin. "And so I can take the load off a little bit because of that, and had we just kind of coasted in here and got lucky to get in this point, then [I] probably [would] not.
"But I feel like we had a solid year. We had a really good car all year and you can't take away the fact that we are coming off our best year ever. I still know that I've got to get better in a lot of areas."