After enduring a season from Hell, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin finally found a bit of Heaven in tonight’s Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hamlin took the lead from Dale Earnhardt Jr. with 24 laps to go and went on to win the Ford Ecoboost 400 by eight-tenths of a second over teammate Matt Kenseth, who came up 19 points short of ninth-place finisher Jimmie Johnson in the 2013 Sprint Cup championship.
That title was something Hamlin was expecting to contend for at the beginning of the season, but a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway in March left him with a compression fracture in his back that forced him out of the next four races before he returned to start his No. 11 JGR Toyota at Talladega in May.
Hamlin then strung together finishes of second and fourth in his first two full races back from the injury, but then hit a very rough patch as he could only muster one Top-10 finish in the next 18 events.
However, the Virginia native closed strong with three Top-10s in the four races before his breakthrough tonight at Homestead. With the triumph, Hamlin has now won at least one race in eight consecutive seasons.
“Man, I wanted to keep that streak alive,” Hamlin told ESPN in Victory Lane. “The whole FedEx team has stuck with us…They said I won a 25-foot Contender boat, so that’s awesome. It’s just a heck of a way to go out.”
As for Kenseth, he raced valiantly on Sunday, pacing a race-high 144 laps and surviving a stack-up with 74 laps to go that almost ruined both his day and Johnson’s.
The 2003 Cup champion fell back several spots after the incident, but fought back to fourth by the final restart with 28 laps to go and then took down a game Dale Earnhardt Jr. for second in the closing moments.
While he was unable to overtake Johnson and win a second Cup crown, Kenseth was still thrilled with his season altogether, which saw him and the No. 20 JGR squad win a series-high seven times.
“It was just an unbelievable year for us,” Kenseth said. “Obviously, we wanted to finish it off and win the championship as good as we ran all year. But I couldn’t be more proud of the whole Dollar General/Home Depot team. They did a spectacular job all season, all day today. I’m super-happy for Denny to get his win here tonight. He really needed that. Denny and Kyle [Busch] are awesome teammates, and I’m looking forward to getting into next season.”
“The day overall was really good for us – really dominant when the sun was out but when it got dark, we were off a little bit and then had the mishap on that restart that kind of got us behind. But, overall, I don’t think you could ask for much more.”
Earnhardt finished third to complete a fine Chase for him that saw him collect five Top-5 and eight Top-10 finishes. With the result, he secured fifth place in the championship standings behind Johnson, Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.
In his final race with Michael Waltrip Racing before moving to Furniture Row Racing in 2014, Martin Truex Jr. capitalized on his strong practice pace to finish fourth ahead of his now-former teammate, Clint Bowyer, in fifth.