HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The winner of NASCAR's Sprint Cup finale gets overshadowed by the Series champion every year, unless that winner is the champion.
It may take you more than a moment to remember that Jeff Gordon won at Homestead last year. Or that Carl Edwards won in 2010. And so on. We remember the celebrations across the yellow paint and giant stage on the frontstretch, not so much the ones that are in victory lane.
On Sunday, Jimmie Johnson became the champion while Denny Hamlin won the race, a fitting bit of symbolism for Hamlin's trying 2013.
Though to Hamlin and team, this win won't be hidden by anything -- but you can't blame him for asking if the year was over yet in victory lane.
"Is the year over yet? It's over." Hamlin said.
"It's a heck of a way to go out."
It's both a literal and metaphorical triumph. Hamlin was in victory lane for the eighth consecutive season, and it was proof that the capabilities of he and his team haven't diminished through the slog of 2013.
In April at Auto Club Speedway, everything was going great for Hamlin, save for a bit of a feud with Joey Logano. On the last lap, Hamlin and Logano made contact and Hamlin's car smashed head-on into a SAFER barrier-less wall on the inside of the track.
After the crash, Hamlin missed four races because of compression fracture in his L1 vertebra. After he returned at Darlington, Hamlin's season petered out after two top fives.
How petered out was it? Well, Sunday's win was Hamlin's first top five since the Coca-Cola 600 over Memorial Day weekend. It's been quite the slog, as Hamlin and team ended up serving as a test team for teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch as those two drivers ran for the championship.
There was no experimenting Sunday. Hamlin was up front most of the evening but when the sun set over South Florida, his car came to life. Over the last laps, Hamlin drove away from Kenseth, who served as the circuit's master of 1.5 mile tracks for the majority of the season.
Get used to that happening again with regularity in 2014. Denny Hamlin's back, and it's just in time for the offseason.
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