HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- An early birthday present. A winning Hail Mary pass to keep a streak intact. A kick-starter to bigger things next season.
Whatever meaning it might take, Denny Hamlin was elated Sunday night after scoring his only victory of the season in Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It was a whale of a consolation prize for an up-and-down season full of mostly downs, but the best up note imaginable.
"As bad as the year is, we can take a little solace in this finish," said Hamlin, who turned 33 on Monday. "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 '14 like we did in 2010 after winning here in 2009."
That season-ending victory four years ago was the launching pad to a 2010 campaign that brought eight wins and his closest brush with a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, finishing second in the standings during Jimmie Johnson's fifth title march. Even with his rough-and-tumble 2013, Hamlin sees hopes for another building-block victory.
"That was the point for us, when we won this race here in '09, confidence went through the roof," he said. "2010 was a great season for us. Hopefully that repeats."
The story of the season was the story of Sunday's race -- overcome a dose of early adversity and finish strong. Hamlin was the only driver among the front-runners who didn't make a pit stop in the race's first caution period, just 12 laps in. While he jumped up to the lead, the rest of the lead lap cars quickly dispatched the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, throwing his team off cycle and dropping him in the running order.
But it was the only pit misstep all day for crew chief Darian Grubb and his charges, who consistently gave Hamlin an edge with snappy pit work the rest of the way.
"It was a good day, team effort," Grubb said. "The strategy didn't go our way after the first caution. We were the only car to stay out. But that was going to work out in our favor in the end, too, if the caution had come out because we were the only team that had any tires left. Luckily we didn't need to do that. The pit crew did an incredible job. Their worst was a 12.3 (second stop). Came out and gained positions every stop."
Hamlin's jubilation had an extra edge, especially after the hardships that he faced from an early stage in the season. His hard crash in the fifth race of the season with former teammate and newfound rival Joey Logano back in March at Auto Club Speedway left him with a fractured back that sidelined him for four races and part of a fifth.
His championship hopes seemingly dashed, Hamlin returned to post a second-place (Darlington) and a fourth-place (Charlotte) in his first two full races back from injury, stoking talk about a potential charge to a Wild Card berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs. But his four Coors Light Pole Awards after his return were offset in a major way by eight DNFs that kept him no higher than 23rd -- his final points ranking -- in the standings the rest of the way.
"There wasn't a whole lot of positives," said Hamlin, who added that he was not planning on offseason back surgery. "Fridays were always really good for us when we qualified. That was always the best day of the weekend for us. I don't know. You just try to find what works for you. Really for us, the last two months we started figuring things out a little bit as a race team, started to turn that corner from where we were in the mid?summer. Still never really got a feel of the car that I was comfortable enough to go up and race for race wins.
"We came here and tested a month or so ago, a few weeks ago, hit on something that was really good for us. You just look at the small victories. That's all I could do, is take pride in the small victories that we had here and there, knowing we were getting a little bit better each week."
Sunday, it finally clicked, ensuring that Hamlin would continue his streak of at least one victory in each of his eight full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series seasons. It was a streak that not only wore on the driver, but the crew chief as well.
"Actually, I lost a lot of sleep last night thinking about that, going into a season where we didn't have a win," Grubb said. "So this is a huge weight off my shoulders, just to get Denny back in Victory Lane, to know we have the good speed, to make Coach (Gibbs) proud back there, that we can do it. We got speed out of the car and actually pulled it off and finished it this time, too."
Hamlin was even more introspective about the continuation of the streak, reflecting on the sweetness of the victory balanced against a year of turmoil after so many successful seasons.
"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," Hamlin said. "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.' When you go an entire year or more without winning, it makes you appreciate when you get back there.
"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, really the cars that I drive."
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