Hamlin wins Cup race for 8th consecutive year

Denny Hamlin had given up on extending his streak.

After winning at least one race for seven consecutive seasons in
NASCAR’s top series, Hamlin figured his run would end along with
the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Think again.

Hamlin salvaged something from an otherwise forgettable year
Sunday by holding off Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and
winning the finale.

”As bad as the year is, we can take a little solace in this
finish,” Hamlin said.

Little went right for Hamlin in 2013. He broke a vertebra in his
lower back in a last-lap crash at California in March, sat out the
next four races and then dealt with pain and discomfort for
months.

He started to ”turn the corner” around the start of the Chase
for the Sprint Cup championship in early September, but had
conceded the end of his streak.

”It’s a horrible year,” he said. ”I was going to be counting
down the laps. You hate to say you give up, but you kind of concede
the fact that we weren’t going to keep the streak alive of a win
every year.”

Hamlin started believing he had a chance early in the 400-mile
finale. He started fifth, fell back to the middle of the pack and
then quickly drove his way back to the front. He spent the rest of
the race challenging for the lead and was up front when it really
matters – in the closing laps.

He celebrated with crew chief Darian Grubb, team President J.D.
Gibbs and crewmembers – as well as his wife and young daughter.

For Hamlin, the scene was as much about relief as reward.

”It weighs on you,” he said. ”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. 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 we went to Victory Lane, it was like,
`Yeah, it’s another one.”’

Not this time.

Hamlin’s 23rd win in the Sprint Cup Series was arguably as
palatable as his first at Pocono in 2006.

”When you go an entire year or more without winning, it makes
you appreciate when you get back there,” said Hamlin, whose last
victory came at New Hampshire in September 2012. ”I think this
does so much more emotionally to our confidence knowing that we can
get back to the top. For me, it just makes me appreciate that
opportunity that I have.”

Hamlin missed the Chase and finished 23rd in points this
season.

But his win gives him confidence he can be a contender in 2014 –
much like he was in six of the previous seven seasons. His JGR
teammates – Kenseth and Kyle Busch – finished second and fourth,
respectively, in points.

”I’m glad Denny’s back,” Kenseth said. ”That’s awesome.
You’ve got to give it to him. He’s had a tough year. We’re all
going to be strong next year.”

And Hamlin’s win also should pay dividends during NASCAR’s short
offseason.

It did in 2009, when Hamlin won the season finale at Homestead
and kick-started his best season. He won eight races in 2010 and
nearly beat Jimmie Johnson for the title.

”I feel like there’s no reason why we can’t shoot out of the
gates in `14 like we did in 2010 after winning here in 2009,”
Hamlin said. ”That was the point for us. When we won this race
here in `09, confidence went through the roof, and 2010 was a great
season for us.

”Hopefully, that repeats.”

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