NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin celebrates his Sprint Cup race victory with… (J Pat Carter / Associated…)
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Over the last 75 laps or so of Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400, it became increasingly apparent either Denny Hamlin or Dale Earnhardt Jr. would not end the Sprint Cup season winless.
Five lead changes spanning the final 44 laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway were between Hamlin and Earnhardt. Hamlin in the No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota retook it for good on Lap 244 and left Earnhardt to duel Matt Kenseth for second place
Hamlin's second win at Homestead-Miami (23rd of his career) also was his first since Sept. 23, 2012, at Loudon. It extended his streak of at least one trip to Victory Lane to eight consecutive seasons.
"You hate to say you give up, but you kind of conceded to the fact that we probably weren't going to keep the streak alive with a win every year," said Hamlin, who missed four races earlier this season due to a back injury suffered in a wreck in Fontana. "As bad as the year is, we can at least take a little solace in this finish and spend these next two months regrouping and getting our team back in order. I feel like there's no reason we can't shoot out of the gate in '14 like we did in 2010 after winning here in 2009."
In 2010, Hamlin arrived at Homestead-Miami with a shot at the Cup championship. He finished second behind Jimmie Johnson thanks to a campaign-best eight wins. The following two seasons brought finishes of ninth and sixth, respectively, in the points standings, but this season was disappointing. Hamlin failed to qualify for the Chase and had just four top-five finishes.
"When you go an entire year or more without winning, it makes you appreciate when you get back there," Hamlin said. "This does so much more emotionally to our confidence knowing we could get back to the top, and it makes me appreciate the opportunity I have and the cars I drive."
Swan song for Martin
Mark Martin's 882nd career Cup start Sunday was his last. Subbing for the injured Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, Martin qualified 22nd and finished 19th.
Martin, 54, said last weekend in Phoenix that he has declined offers to keep driving next season. He is expected to assume an advisory role with Stewart-Haas Racing. SHR driver Danica Patrick will welcome his input.
"Some of it's about driving, but a lot of it is about team and about communication and about what we need to improve overall as a team from somebody like Mark Martin that has so much experience and has accomplished so much," Patrick said. "He has seen a lot of different teams. That is a great perspective. He is there to [answer] driving questions, but he is also there to just help overall from a team perspective."
A five-time runner-up in the points standings, Martin has 40 career Cup victories.
Montoya ends NASCAR run
Colombian-born Miami resident Juan Pablo Montoya made his NASCAR debut at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19, 2006, and that's where it ended Sunday.
Montoya concluded his seventh Sprint Cup season with an 18th-place finish Sunday. After 253 career Cup starts for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, Montoya is returning to his open-wheel roots. He'll drive for Roger Penske in the Indy Racing League next season.