Denny Hamlin soaring after Dega win

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TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Denny Hamlin, who hadn't been able to buy a break all season, finally caught a whopper Sunday -- at the expense of two more drivers who'd come here in about the same shape.

Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer were a moment away from ganging up for a big run on Hamlin midway through the final lap at Talladega Superspeedway.

Then, caution.

Field frozen.

Race over, save for the cruise to the finish line.

In the blink of an eye, Hamlin's spirits soared and theirs remained in the doldrums. The relief was palpable in the words of Hamlin's team president, J.D. Gibbs, in sentences that rolled out as one long sigh of relief.

"It's very nice," Gibbs said of the win. "He needed it so bad ... that win really helped a lot of the past issues get put behind him."

What's more, Gibbs' tones smacked of anticipation that Hamlin just might surge from here.

"I think Denny really operates a lot off momentum, and I think this will really help our case for 2014," Gibbs said.

Hamlin's season had been unraveling lately, after he'd had to miss a race he'd hoped to win at Fontana, California, in March with an eye injury.

"We missed out on some opportunities to have good finishes over this past month or so," Hamlin said. "I was really looking forward to California -- I felt like we had one of the best cars in practice -- and didn't get to run that event. After that, between Texas, Darlington and Richmond, we've had some bad luck ... It's very frustrating to run top five, top 10 all day and then -- we've been finishing right around 20th for three weeks in a row.

"That really takes its toll on a team."

Weeks like those "are momentum crushers," he said. But "a win like this makes you forget all those things and gives you a clean slate for the rest of the summer."

He became the eighth different winner this season, and under the win-you're-in format is very likely to make the Chase now.

Now granted, this was at Talladega, aka Casino de Alabama, where wins are heavily weighted on the luck of the scramble in the draft.

But, "even though it's a superspeedway and it's all circumstantial, it at least lets us rest a little bit easier," Hamlin said.

The circumstances in the final moments appeared to favor Biffle and Bowyer as they rushed up on Hamlin, but the roulette wheel stopped suddenly this time.

Just as the leaders took the white flag, a wreck broke out behind them, leaving debris before the start-finish line, and the wrecked car of Alex Bowman just beyond the line.

So NASCAR officials just couldn't risk a race back to the line, and threw the caution in the middle of the last lap. By rule, once the leader has taken the white flag, there can be no green-white-checkered finish.

But neither Biffle nor Bowyer questioned the call.

"NASCAR did the right thing," said Bowyer, who wound up third. "You can't put people in danger right there. And if there'd been a green-white-checkered, everybody would have been out of gas."

Even at Talladega, "unfortunately, we don't always see that crazy, wild finish," Bowyer continued. "But I don't think that's on NASCAR."

Biffle, knowing he had Bowyer right behind him for a push, was calculating when to make his move as they entered the final lap.

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