HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Denny Hamlin had to be forgiven for counting down the laps to the end of a dreadful season.
A perennial contender for wins and championships, so much so he had come to take it for granted, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver had suffered a compression fracture in his back in a wicked crash at Auto Club Speedway following an on-track tussle with Joey Logano. He had missed four races, effectively ending his season by ending his realistic opportunity to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
A 22-time winner in just nine seasons at NASCAR's highest level, he had been relegated to a glorified test driver status as teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch qualified for NASCAR's 10-race playoff. There was the "lightning bolts of pain" through his back, finally quelled by injections so he could resume training for a merciful reset in 2014.
Then Sunday night happened at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It didn't make the season any less arduous, but it took the edge off. And it sure improved the prospects for a raucous 33rd birthday party on Monday, probably beginning wherever he wakes up after Sunday's festivities.
"What a way to go out, guys," Hamlin screamed over team radio after winning the EcoBoost 400. "Let everybody know I think we're staying in Miami."
Hamlin led five times for 72 laps, assuming the front for the final time with 23 laps left and holding off Kenseth by 0.799 seconds. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third, Martin Truex Jr. fourth and Clint Bowyer fifth.
Jimmie Johnson finished ninth to claim his six Sprint Cup title.
In a lost season of his prime, Hamlin was able to at least salvage something, and not just a few more remnants of his pride and confidence. Along with it comes his streak of at least one victory in each of his eight full Cup seasons. And it obviously mattered.
"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. For me it just makes me appreciate that opportunity that I have, really the cars that I drive."
Hamlin had a fast one on Sunday. He started fifth and was in contention throughout the race, though crew chief Darian Grubb's decision to eschew an early pit stop dropped him to as low as 17th on Lap 30. Hamlin was able to drive his No. 11 Toyota back through the field, however, taking the lead for a 40-lap stint on the front beginning on Lap 167. He led the final 23 laps with the help of a pitched battle between Earnhardt and Kenseth, whose miniscule title hopes were predicated on a victory and a disaster finish by Johnson.
Hamlin finished 23rd in points after never being worse than 12th as a full-time Cup driver, but the sniff of returning to life as a contender clearly piqued him. Spending most of the season watching the proverbial train pull farther away on the horizon had sapped him. He finished the season with four top-5s and eight top-10s.
"For me, when you come back after missing four or five races, one or two bad finishes, it was, 'My Chase hopes are over,'" said Hamlin, who was injured in the fifth race of the season. "You're kind of racing for nothing, really. It's hard to find the motivation to perform at 100 percent when you're trying to find yourself, trying to figure out what feel you need, really when you feel like you're not racing for anything."
Now instead of wondering throughout the offseason -- the Daytona 500 is scheduled for Feb. 23 -- about whether he can recover his place as a contender, Hamlin will leave Miami, eventually, contemplating a vault from Sunday night and into 2014. He has done it before, winning at Homestead in 2009 and going on to claim a series-high eight races and finish a career-best second in the standings the next season.
Maybe 2013 could serve a purpose after all.
"It's a horrible year," Hamlin said of 2013. "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.
"As bad as the year is, we can take a little solace in this finish, spend these next two months regrouping, getting our team back in order. 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. That was the point for us, when we won this race here in '09, confidence went through the roof. 2010 was a great season for us. Hopefully that repeats."