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No. 4: Denny Hamlin Wins at Homestead

Salvage. Redemption. Struggle. Semblance of hope. Solace of Victory. Remnants of pride and confidence. Finally.

These words peppered news headlines following the last race of the 2013 Sprint Cup season in describing the experience and outcome for driver Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 FedEx team. It had been a tough season for Hamlin and his team, but they couldn’t have asked for a better antidote than the sweetness of Homestead’s victory lane.

“As bad as the year is, we can take a little solace in this finish,” said Hamlin. “It gets your spirits down, but then to come here and back it up with a win is special.”

In just the fifth race of the season at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Hamlin collided with former teammate Joey Logano and suffered a fractured back that took him out for another four and a half races. The rest of the season looked bleak for Hamlin as he was doled out a mean helping of bad luck, acquiring eight DNFs and sinking to 23rd in points ranking.

“When you’ve had a year like we’ve had, you just wonder ‘Hey, how can I get back to the top five,” Hamlin said. “And when will I ever win a race again?”

With no victories in over a year, this would be the first winless season for Hamlin in his eight-year career at NASCAR’s highest level. Despite what he called the “small victories” he hit with just a few weeks to go, Hamlin was counting down the laps for the disheartening season to come to an end.

But something clicked on that Sunday in Miami.

After his first run, Hamlin said he knew they had a car capable of winning. He battled inside the top 10 through the opening round of pit stops, but dropped back in the running order when the other frontrunners returned. By lap 73, Hamlin drove his way back to eighth and continued to move forward with the help of some excellent pit work—no stop lasted longer than 12.3 seconds. With 100 laps to go, Hamlin pulled ahead of teammate Matt Kenseth for the lead position. He fell to second for just 27 laps as he battled it out with another driver hungry to win: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“It was one of those races that, no matter what, one of these guys who hadn’t won all year was going to win it,” Hamlin said.

But Hamlin regained the top spot with 29 to go. From there, he redeemed his season and rescued his streak in the knick of time, taking the checkered flag for the first time in 2013 at the season finale. It was his 23rd career win and his second at Homestead. Hamlin hadn’t stood in victory lane since his last win at New Hampshire in September 2012. This trip to victory lane was even sweeter as his 10-month-old daughter, Taylor, joined him there for the first time.

And Hamlin did not take his win lightly.

“It shows you what hard work does,” Hamlin said. “When you go an entire year or more without winning, it makes you appreciate when you get back there. This does so much more emotionally to our confidence knowing we could get back to the top, and it makes me appreciate the opportunity I have and the cars I drive.”

After a season that “makes you tougher,” Hamlin and his No. 11 FedEx team have hope and history on their side. His last win at Homestead in 2009 launched him into the best season of his career in 2010.

“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 here in ’09, confidence went through the roof. 2010 was a great season for us. Hopefully that repeats.”

In the off-season, Hamlin said he will be working hard to get back to 100 percent, ready to take on Daytona in February.

With a thrilling win the day before his 33rd birthday, Hamlin said “It’s a heck of a way to go out.”

Denny Hamlin Wins at Homestead. Momentum-Builder: 5; Display of Strength: 4; History-Maker: 2; Feel-Good Story: 10

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