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Hamlin back to winning ways at Phoenix

"Those are the types of things you've got to do to take the chances," he said. "When you're close enough to at least coast around, they did a good job."

Also falling foul in the final laps were Jeff Burton (who developed an engine problem on lap 288) and Marcos Ambrose, set for a top three finish before his own engine blew half a dozen laps later.

"I don't really know what happened we broke something," said Burton. "I felt like a valve or valve spring of something, we don't really know just yet."

"We blew up," said Ambrose with typical Aussie succinctness, clearly unhappy with losing out on such a strong result at the last minute. "We are here trying to run for wins and run for championships and to trip over ourselves like that, it just isn't going to get it done."

Over in victory lane there were well-deserved celebrations for Denny Hamlin and the #11 team, which this season includes crew chief Darian Grubb who was in charge of Tony Stewart's championship-winning car in 2011 only to be let go by Stewart-Haas over the winter. Scoring a win so early in the season with his new team is unimpeachable proof of his talent: six of the last Cup race wins have gone to a Grubb-engineered car.

"I guess you could say it's a little bit of vindication ... I definitely came out of last year feeling like I still had something to prove," said Grubb. "The end of last year was bittersweet. I really loved working with those guys. The way it ended, I didn't really get to enjoy the championship like I really should have. So we're going to do our best this season to go out and win another one, this time with Denny and Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing."

The win meant the most to the driver himself, however. It was Hamlin's 18th race win in 225 Sprint Cup appearances, but moreover it was a return to something like the form that he'd enjoyed in 2010 when he finished runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in the Cup championship. By contrast, 2011 had been a deep disappointment with only one win (at Michigan in June) all season.

"I don't know where this came from. I don't know how our car was as good as it was," said Hamlin. "We were solidly off in practice. We were off, but we kept getting it better and closer to being competitive. But I had no idea we were going to fire off like we did."

He definitely saw this early victory as a way of shaking off for once and for all the malaise that had hung over the team in 2011 after its championship near-miss the year before. "We just never got going," he admitted. "Maybe there was a hangover effect for the first half of the year ... 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."

That's now all in the past. While it's early days yet, taking the lead of the Sprint Cup championship standings is just the tonic that Hamlin was after to show that he's a real contender for the title again in 2012.




Related Pictures

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Tony Stewart gets a push to pit road after turning off his engine to save fuel and not being able to refire on Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway at Avondale, Ariz. [Picture Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR]
Denny Hamlin celebrates after snapping a 22-race winless streak in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series after taking the win in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Ariz. [Picture Credit: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images for NASCAR]
Denny Hamlin leads Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle late in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Subway Fresh Fit 500 on Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Ariz. [Picture Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR]
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, races to win Sunday, August 17, 2014 in the Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy Johns Chevrolet SS finished second. This was Gordon`s third win of the season. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy Johns Chevrolet SS, qualified sixth Friday, August 15, 2014 for Sunday`s Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. Harvick is 8th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Ryan Newman and Michael McDowell wreck at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, August 10 2014. (Photo Credit: Tom Pennington/NASCAR via Getty Images)
AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose lead the field to a restart at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, August 10 2014. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
AJ Allmendinger leads Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, August 10 2014. (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Regan Smith prepares to stand in for Tony Stewart at short notice at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, August 10 2014. (Photo Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Stewart-Haas vice-president Greg Ziparelli addresses the media at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, August 10 2014. (Photo Credit: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon and Marcos Ambrose lead the field at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, August 10 2014. (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon and Marcos Ambrose lead the field to the green flag at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, August 10 2014. (Photo Credit: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Marcos Ambrose, driver of the #09 Stanley Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Zippo 200 at Watkins Glen International on August 9, 2014 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Marcos Ambrose, driver of the #09 Stanley Ford, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Nationwide Zippo 200 at Watkins Glen International on August 9, 2014 in Watkins Glen, New York.  (Photo Credit: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Marcos Ambrose, driver of the #09 Stanley Ford, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Nationwide Zippo 200 at Watkins Glen International on August 9, 2014 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Marcos Ambrose, driver of the #9 Stanley Ford, looks on in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on August 8, 2014 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Quicken Loans Chevrolet, drives through the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway on August 1, 2014 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, drives in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway on August 1, 2014 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

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