TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) -- Denny Hamlin started his full-time career at Joe Gibbs Racing with an upset victory in an exhibition race at Daytona. Over the years, he added three more wins in races that didn't count, including a sweep this season in the buildup to the Daytona 500.
But when it came to the restrictor-plate races that paid points, Hamlin came up empty time and again.
Hamlin, who opened the season with two exhibition victories 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!"
"I think I've gotten better. I've come close. When you drive as aggressive as I drove early in my career on superspeedways, you're going to have a huge risk, huge reward," he said after the win. "I was either wrecking or finishing in the top three every single superspeedway race and was wrecking most of the time. I think this way of driving and the way I'm doing things now kind of lends itself to being a little bit more consistent on these type of race tracks, and really you learn from the guys that are good at it."
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.
"I wasn't ever worried, but you get a little bit more panicked when it's, 'Win a race and you're in Chase,' " he said. "You see all these guys logging wins, wins, wins, and the next thing you know they're running out of Chase spots. Now we can be a little bit more relaxed."
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."