A long time coming for Denny Hamlin's, JGR's, first win of the season

LOUDON, N.H. -- Denny Hamlin probably wasn't the first pick to end Joe Gibbs Racing's season-long winless streak, but there he was in Victory Lane on Sunday after holding off a hard-charging Kyle Larson in the Overton's 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Hamlin isn't going to apologize, though, especially after a crash Friday sent him to a backup car.

His personal winless streak stretched back to Texas in November, so getting a victory and virtually assuring himself a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs was all the boost he needed after beating Larson by just more than half a second.

"It's a great feeling," Hamlin said. "I know we've been getting better and better as the year goes on, but definitely needed a win for the organization and for myself and just kind of get some momentum going with the playoffs coming up.

"Really, this is awesome. ... It's a team effort and for them to do the extra work to get us [a win] -- that engine change before qualifying was key, and that pays off."

Kyle Busch would be the JGR pick to win a race, and for a while Sunday, it looked like he would have a solid chance to do it after leading twice for 95 of the 301 laps and winning the second stage of the race. But two pit-road speeding penalties -- something completely under his control -- late in the race doomed him to a 12th-place finish.

Teammate Matt Kenseth was the leader on the final restart of the race, but opting to change just two tires on the final pit stop while everyone else got four left him a sitting duck with 34 laps left. He still managed to finish fourth.

Even rookie teammate Daniel Suarez -- certainly not a real contender to win yet but getting there -- finished a strong sixth.

No, it was Hamlin who kept his cool, and crew chief Michael Wheeler made the right calls to put the No. 11 FedEx Toyota in position to win.

Larson did not make it easy.

The final restart was chaotic, with Hamlin starting fourth alongside Martin Truex Jr., who had dominated the race leading 137 laps, starting third behind Kenseth. Kenseth started second because Dale Earnhardt Jr. had stayed out to go into the lead. Larson restarted fifth, just behind Truex.

Hamlin jumped on Kenseth immediately as Earnhardt turned into an afterthought, Truex got loose and briefly dropped back to seventh and Larson quickly found himself third and chasing the leaders.

As the laps wound down, lapped traffic played a major role in thwarting Larson, and he ran out of time to get past the No. 11.

"I thought I was catching him at a good pace, but once I would get closer to him, I would get in his dirty air a little bit and get tight," Larson said. "But, I felt like if I had maybe five, eight more laps, I could have gotten to his back bumper and maybe did something.

"He is probably the best short-track racer there is out here. Especially, when it comes to short, flat tracks; but for me to get beat by him is not a cool thing, but I'm proud of that because Denny Hamlin, like I said, is really good at this stuff."

Hamlin said the win was great, but there is still more to do.

"Yeah, we get in the playoffs, we get some playoff bonus points and we're ready to go now, so we've got to -- we've still got a lot of work to do," he said. "I feel like we need a little bit more speed out of our cars to be competitive week in, week out, but honestly, this is a great place to start."

For the JGR team as a whole, team owner Joe Gibbs sees some brightening skies at the end of a week when it was announced Kenseth would be replaced by Erik Jones next season. Now, with one driver practically locked into the playoffs and another, Busch, all but assured to be in --, thanks to a 178-point lead over the driver in 17th, Joey Logano -- the team can turn its focus to more wins and maybe getting Kenseth and Suarez into the playoffs.

"Well, I think, first of all, for all of our guys, we got off to a slow start this year, and I think the thing I'd like to say most about our entire group there, nobody ever would point fingers or anything," he said. "Everybody would just say, 'We've got to go to work.'

"I think our guys back home working on the cars took it the same way, and I think everybody has been working extremely hard, and I'm hoping what's happening now is we're starting to hit our stride and get better and better down the stretch. That would be a big deal for us."

Next up is Indianapolis, and JGR can see if it has really gained some speed on the two drivers -- Truex and Larson -- who have been the best through the middle of the season.