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The Inside Line: Hamlin relieved to be in Chase again

<p>After missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for the first time in 2013, Denny Hamlin all but guaranteed himself of making the playoffs this year by winning at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday.</p>

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - After missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for the first time in 2013, Denny Hamlin all but guaranteed himself of making the playoffs this year by winning at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday.

In the 500-mile race, Hamlin pulled ahead of Kevin Harvick for the lead following the last restart with just two laps to go and then held off Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer during the final lap before the race ended under caution for debris that came from Justin Allgaier's car.

It was the first time Hamlin won a Sprint Cup Series points-paying race on a restrictor-plate racetrack (Daytona and Talladega). The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has been a full-time competitor in NASCAR's top series since 2006.

In February, Hamlin won the preseason, non-points race at Daytona (The Sprint Unlimited) and claimed victory in the second Daytona 500 qualifying event (Budweiser Duel). He finished second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Daytona 500.

"After nine years, you would think I'd come close to winning one, but I don't think it's just random, especially after what we did in Daytona," Hamlin said. "I think it's a lot of different patience and different things I've learned just with experience."

Hamlin can now rest easy on trying to make the Chase.

Before the start of this season, NASCAR expanded the field of drivers/teams in the Chase from 12 to 16. The top-15 drivers with the most wins during the 26- race regular season become eligible for the playoffs, provided they have finished in the top 30 in points. The 16th and final position goes to the driver who is the highest in points without a victory.

Hamlin became the eighth different winner in the first 10 races this season. His JGR teammate, Kyle Busch, won the March 23 event in Fontana, Calif. Matt Kenseth, who also drives for JGR, is currently second in the standings, just three points behind leader Jeff Gordon. Kenseth and Gordon have yet to win this year. There are 16 races remaining before the regular season concludes on Sept. 6 at Richmond.

"This is a good moment for us; it definitely is," said Hamlin, who is presently 12th in points. "Even though it is a superspeedway and it's all circumstantial, it at least lets us rest a little bit easier here for a while."

Hamlin's win gave him momentum after struggling in the past several weeks.

He was forced to miss the Fontana race after a small piece of metal got in his eye, which affected his vision and therefore prevented him from racing there.

After Fontana, Hamlin finished no better than 13th in the next four races before he picked up his first win of the season at Talladega.

"Between having to sit that out and then having to go through these last three weeks of running better but finishing worse than where we were running all day, it's just a momentum killer," he said. "Now that we have a win, we don't have to hit the panic button or press too hard to get a win to get into the Chase. We do need to be consistent, work on our program, just continue to keep our heads down and work on things. Momentum comes with good results."

Hamlin's team now has the liberty of gambling as much as they want in a race until the Chase begins (Sept. 14 at Chicagoland).

"Now that we have the win now, it gives us the momentum to actually go and try things at the racetrack a little bit more free," Hamlin's crew chief, Darian Grubb, said. "We can work on things we know we need to work on, and if the set-up doesn't work one week as we try to get better, it's not going to kill us and where we are at in points. It gives us a little bit more freedom.

"We've tested our butt off for the last couple months, and we've learned a lot of things. We think we're getting better, and we've got good things coming down the line. Hopefully, we can just keep all these things rolling and get the momentum going before the Chase starts."

Hamlin qualified for the Chase each year from 2006-12. He finished a career- best second in points and won a series-season-high eight races in 2010.

Last year, Hamlin suffered a compression fracture in his lower back during an accident on the final lap in Fontana. His injury sidelined him for the next four races. He made his return in the spring event at Talladega, completing 25 laps before handing the car over to relief driver Brian Vickers.

Though he failed to qualify for the Chase, Hamlin concluded the 2013 season by winning at Homestead and finishing 23rd in points.

He's now looking forward to his return to the Chase and possibly winning a championship.

"I'm pretty confident by the time the Chase rolls around in September we'll have all the parts and pieces available to us to have a very fast race car and to have a car that can contend for a championship," he said.

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