Denny Hamlin savors win in Sprint Cup season finale

jutter@charlotteobserver.comNovember 17, 2013 

— Denny Hamlin spent part of 2013 season watching from the sidelines.

He also spent part of the season testing new parts and setups on his car to help his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, who made the Chase while he did not.

On Sunday, he finally got to spend some time in Victory Lane.

Hamlin passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. with 24 of 267 laps remaining, built a sizable advantage and held on to win the Ford 400 Sprint Cup Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“As bad as the year is, we can take a little solace in this finish,” said Hamlin, who earned his first victory of the season and 23rd of his career. “We’ll spend these next two months regrouping, getting our team back in order.

“I feel like there’s no reason why we can’t shoot out of the gates in 2014 like we did in 2010 after winning here in 2009. That was the point for us, when we won this race here in ’09, confidence went through the roof.”

Pardon Hamlin for searching for something uplifting.

It wasn’t long after the season began, that he found himself out of his No. 11 Toyota for four races after fracturing a vertebra in his back in a wreck in March at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

For all practical purposes that eliminated Hamlin from this season’s championship picture, but he remained resolute in wanting to continue his streak of winning at least one race in each of his full-time Cup seasons.

By late in the year, it appeared Hamlin may end the season with a win. He racked up several bad finishes while working on setups and parts to assist his teammates in their respective quests for this season’s championship.

A good test at Homestead several weeks ago gave Hamlin optimism for the season finale.

“At this point what I really love about this win is that you appreciate it so much more because you went through the bad times,” said Hamlin, who won a day before his 33rd birthday. “I was just so fortunate for the first seven years of my career to not really have a horrible season.

“We were always able to win races every year. Any given week, we knew we could win. It was just taken for granted, it seemed like.

“When you go an entire year or more without winning, it makes you appreciate when you get back there.”

Team president J.D. Gibbs agreed.

“For Denny, it was a tough year,” he said. “This to me was one of the best wins we’ve had at Joe Gibbs Racing in all the years we’ve been doing it because these guys are capable, gifted, they can do it.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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