TALLADEGA, Ala. — Denny Hamlin, winner of four races at Daytona that didn’t count, finally has a points-paying victory at a restrictor-plate track.
Hamlin, who opened the season with a pair of wins in Daytona exhibition races only to finish second in the Daytona 500, was again sitting second in the closing laps Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. But he won a drag race with leader Kevin Harvick on a restart with two laps remaining, and was out front when NASCAR froze the field because of debris from an accident.
Hamlin let out a deep sigh when the yellow flag waved. “Superspeedway win,” he said on his radio. “With points! With points!”
Hamlin became the eighth winner in 10 races this season as drivers jockey to grab the 16 spots available in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. A victory conceivably gives a driver an automatic berth, and Joe Gibbs Racing now has both Hamlin and Kyle Busch eligible for the Chase.
“We really just want to win races, regardless of the implications of what this means for the Chase,” Hamlin said. “I’m still a short-track guy. Those are my roots. But we’ve come a long way. We couldn’t finish 22nd in a restrictor-plate track, now we know we have the cars and the skills to win.”
The win came at the track where Hamlin made a brief return last year — he ran just 23 laps before turning his car over to Brian Vickers — after missing four races with a broken back. Hamlin’s return to the car briefly built some momentum for the No. 11 team, but as his back continued to ache, the season fell apart in late summer and it took until the season finale for Hamlin to score his first win of the year.
He also missed the Chase for the first time in his career. It didn’t appear that Hamlin had enough to beat Harvick, already a two-time winner this season, until the final restart.
Harvick didn’t get the help he needed from behind, was hung out without any drafting partners, and Hamlin pulled out to a comfortable lead. “We were in a good spot there at the end, and what you would want to put yourself in a position to win,” Harvick said. “Our line just never formed up.”