In his second race with 2011 Sprint Cup championship crew chief Darian Grubb on his pit box, Hamlin held off Kevin Harvick in a 53-lap green-flag run to finish the 312-lap race at the one-mile track and took over the series points lead for the first time since surrendering it in the final race of 2010 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Harvick lost fuel pressure with fewer than two laps left but had enough momentum to retain the second position, 7.315 seconds behind the race winner.
Greg Biffle came home third, followed by Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon, pole-sitter Mark Martin and Joey Logano completed the top 10.
Hamlin surged into the lead after a restart on Lap 254, passing Harvick and pulling away. Ryan Newman’s hard contact with the Turn 4 wall two laps later caused the seventh caution of the afternoon, but Hamlin again stretched his advantage over Harvick after a restart on Lap 260 and held on the rest of the way.
“I don’t know where this came from,” Hamlin said. “We were solidly off in practice. We were off, but we kept getting it better and closer and closer to being competitive, but I had no idea that we were going to fire off like we did today.”
With an opportunity to secure his first title in the next-to-last race of 2010, Hamlin led a race-high 190 laps but fell victim to pit strategy from other teams, finished 12th and lost 18 points of a 33-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson. A week later, a shell-shocked Hamlin spun early and saw the championship escape him.
Hamlin admitted there might have been a lingering malaise in 2011, when he made the Chase for the Sprint Cup as a wild card and finished ninth in the standings but didn’t come close to matching his 2010 stats.
“We just never got going (in 2011),” Hamlin said. “Yeah, maybe there was a hangover effect for the first half of the year — you can claim that — but it didn’t have anything to do with how bad I ran the last 10 races. We just didn’t have it all together . . .
“We’ve still got work to do. I’m going to push for more and more and more — things within our racecar — that’s the attitude you’ve got to have to stay on top, and when I come back here, it just puts 2011 to rest. That year is done. It’s a year I’d just as soon forget about, and we’re focused on winning a championship.”
Jettisoned by Tony Stewart in favor of Steve Addington despite leading the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team to its first Cup championship — and Stewart’s third — Grubb savored the victory as much as Hamlin did.
“I guess you could say it is a little bit of vindication, but I really don’t think that way,” Grubb said. “I try to just think the high road all the time. I feel like I came into a very good situation. Mike Ford (Grubb’s predecessor) built one heck of a team here with the No. 11 car.
“I’m proud to be able to come in here and lead this bunch of guys.”
Notes: Hamlin leads the series standings by six points over Biffle, who also finished third in the Daytona 500 . . . Stewart turned his engine off after NASCAR threw the yellow flag for the seventh caution and couldn’t get the No. 14 restarted. The defending Cup champion finished 22nd, two laps down . . . Daytona runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. posted a nondescript 14th-place result and left PIR fifth in points, 17 behind Hamlin.