JENNIFER C. KERR
HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) -- Denny Hamlin had given up on extending his streak.
After winning at least one race for seven consecutive seasons in NASCAR's top series, Hamlin figured his run would end along with the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hamlin salvaged something from an otherwise forgettable year Sunday by holding off Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and winning the finale.
"As bad as the year is, we can take a little solace in this finish," Hamlin said.
Little went right for Hamlin in 2013. He broke a vertebra in his lower back in a last-lap crash at California in March, sat out the next four races and then dealt with pain and discomfort for months.
He started to "turn the corner" around the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in early September, but had conceded the end of his streak.
"It's a horrible year," he said. "I was going to be counting down the laps. You hate to say you give up, but you kind of concede the fact that we weren't going to keep the streak alive of a win every year."
Hamlin started believing he had a chance early in the 400-mile finale. He started fifth, fell back to the middle of the pack and then quickly drove his way back to the front. He spent the rest of the race challenging for the lead and was up front when it really matters -- in the closing laps.
He celebrated with crew chief Darian Grubb, team President J.D. Gibbs and crewmembers -- as well as his wife and young daughter.
For Hamlin, the scene was as much about relief as reward.
"It weighs on you," he said. "At this point, what I really love about this win is that you appreciate it so much more because you went through the bad times. I was just so fortunate for the first seven years of my career to not really have a horrible season. We were always able to win races every year.
"Any given week, we knew we could win. It was just taken for granted it seemed like. When we went to Victory Lane, it was like, 'Yeah, it's another one.'"
Not this time.
Hamlin's 23rd win in the Sprint Cup Series was arguably as palatable as his first at Pocono in 2006.
"When you go an entire year or more without winning, it makes you appreciate when you get back there," said Hamlin, whose last victory came at New Hampshire in September 2012. "I think this does so much more emotionally to our confidence knowing that we can get back to the top. For me, it just makes me appreciate that opportunity that I have."
Hamlin missed the Chase and finished 23rd in points this season.
But his win gives him confidence he can be a contender in 2014 -- much like he was in six of the previous seven seasons. His JGR teammates -- Kenseth and Kyle Busch -- finished second and fourth, respectively, in points.
"I'm glad Denny's back," Kenseth said. "That's awesome. You've got to give it to him. He's had a tough year. We're all going to be strong next year."
And Hamlin's win also should pay dividends during NASCAR's short offseason.
It did in 2009, when Hamlin won the season finale at Homestead and kick-started his best season. He won eight races in 2010 and nearly beat Jimmie Johnson for the title.
"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 this race here in '09, confidence went through the roof, and 2010 was a great season for us.
"Hopefully, that repeats."
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