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.

"I looked in the mirror and saw the smoke behind me," Biffle said, "and I wasn't really sure whether the caution had come out, and I didn't know what to do.

"I thought about making my move on the 11 [Hamlin] right then, because I had a huge run, and I could have. And then probably off [Turn] 2 I could have got beside him and sucked by him.

"But I just didn't want to pass too early."

With the drafting freight train behind him, a premature move would have meant "I was going to be 15th by the time we got back around to the start-finish line.

"So I was just waiting. I was backing up off him quite a bit on the backstretch [to make a run] and I got probably 2½ or three cars away from him and they said, 'Caution's out.'

"I was setting up to go by him, but I just never had the chance. I wish I'd known we weren't going to race all the way back."

At the white flag, "I liked the situation I was in, for sure," Bowyer said. "I knew Greg was going to try something, and we did have a big push at him. You see those guys crashing in your rearview mirror and you're like, well, history has shown that usually if they're straightened up, not sitting in the middle of the racetrack, we're going to finish this thing under green."

But Bowyer, too, knew that "you pull out right then, you might be 15th by the time you get 2 miles over here to the start-finish line ... uh ..." And his voice trailed off and he said resignedly, "we finished third."

That was all there was to it.

And so, Bowyer's winless streak in Cup extended to 51 races, back to 2012. Biffle's slump went to 31 races, back to last summer.

Talladega threw up a break for grabs among the three, and Hamlin caught it.

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