NASCAR Talladega 2014 weekend recap: Denny Hamlin finds solace in ‘Dega Victory Lane

Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t been easy as of late for Denny Hamlin, but everything came together Sunday with a victory at Talladega.

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- It was apropos that the driver who continually suffered ill-timed misfortunes found himself on the receiving end of a fortuitous break Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

As Denny Hamlin held the point on the white flag lap of the Aaron's 499, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer were sizing Hamlin up like hyenas eyeballing a lonely antelope; mere seconds away from pouncing. But before the pair could strike, a caution for a wreck along the front stretch froze the field.

"I made some pretty bad mistakes two weeks in a row. Those are momentum crushers. Those things can really bug you … really can take its toll on the team." -Denny Hamlin

Race over. Hamlin declared the winner. Biffle and Bowyer left wondering "what if?"

Without that yellow Hamlin likely would have been passed, with little recourse to maneuver  back around Biffle and Bowyer. Instead, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver hung on to win the 24th race of his career and first on a restrictor-plate track.

Just as confetti reigned down and Gatorade went flying around Victory Lane in celebration, Hamlin's shoulders were released of a considerable burden. A weight that had steadily grown heavier, as recent struggles threatened to sap the overriding confidence Hamlin expressed in February during Daytona 500 Speedweeks.

It was then the 33-year-old won two preliminary events, and continually expressed how fit he was following a broken back that derailed his 2013 season. He was his "old self" Hamlin all but shouted after winning the Sprint Unlimited and then again after taking his Duel qualifying race.

But the promise that existed in the days leading to the dawn of the season had evaporated in the weeks leading into Talladega.

Long someone who thrives on proving doubters wrong, Hamlin had handed them no shortage of ammunition. All compounded when he began pressing, creating a snowball effect of continued frustration and missed opportunity.

In succession, a fluke eye injury knocked Hamlin out of the March 23 race at Fontana; a subpar 19th at Martinsville, a track the native Virginian has long dominated; then speeding penalties in consecutive weeks at Texas Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway, where the No. 11 car was fast and a potential race-winning machine; all capped with an off night at another traditional stronghold, Richmond.

For a driver who thrives off confidence it was a turn of events which left Hamlin wondering if 2014 was following the same path as the year before, where early season promise never came to fruition then quickly spiraled downward.

"I made some pretty bad mistakes two weeks in a row, and then obviously last week getting wrecked at the very end," said an elated and equally relieved Hamlin post-race. "Those are momentum crushers. Those things can really bug you ... really can take its toll on the team."

Any concerns about morale have now vanished after 500-miles of rough-and-tumble racing Saturday. With a mark in the win column, Hamlin will almost certainly qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup just one year removed from missing out for the first time in his career.

It also might signal a harbinger of bigger things to come.

The book on Hamlin is that of a driver at his best when he's at his cockiest, which almost always coincides with his performance on the track. If Hamlin's smiling, laughing and talking smack in a cocksure manner, look out.

It's no wonder then that as his confidence soars he has had a tendency to accumulate wins in bunches.

Although the win doesn't renounce Hamlin's woes as of late, it does provide him an important cushion as he continues to work out the kinks. The Chase doesn't begin until mid-September, plenty of time for driver and team to round into the form that had them seemingly on a brink of a championship before Hamlin's 2013 injury.

"We don't have to hit the panic button at this point," Hamlin said. "Now we can just focus on working on our program, doing whatever it takes to get ourselves in contention.

"This is a good moment for us, it definitely is. Even though it is a superspeedway and it's all circumstantial, it lets us rest a little bit easier here for a while."

Whether the No. 11 team has the necessary consistency to secure that elusive championship remains in doubt, though that may no longer be relevant.

If he can go on one of his patent runs, Hamlin may not have to concern himself with maintaining high-level results throughout the Chase thanks to NASCAR's new playoff format where winning automatically advances you to the next round.

"I'm pretty confident by the time the Chase rolls around in September we'll have all the parts and pieces available to us to have a very fast race car and to have a car that can contend for a championship," Hamlin said.

Because if there is one thing Talladega proved it's that no matter how dire things may appear, Hamlin is always capable of winning on any given week. And if don't believe that just ask him and he will gladly tell you.

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