JGR’s drought is over

In backup car, he holds off Lar­son in New Hamp­shire

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Ellen J. Hor­row @El­lenJHor­row USA TO­DAY Sports

Denny Ham­lin holds off Kyle Lar­son in New Hamp­shire,

“We’veget This a doesn’tlit­tle still faster.got to re­lieve any pres­sure. We still have to get bet­ter.” Denny Ham­lin

Fi­nally, the ques­tions can stop. Joe Gibbs Racing got the mon­key off its back.

It had been 20 races since the most dom­i­nant team of 2016 had been to vic­tory lane, and as the races wore on this sea­son and the win­less drought length­ened, the ques­tions be­came more fre­quent: What would it take for one of the four JGR driv­ers to win and when would it hap­pen?

The an­swer came Sun­day at New Hamp­shire Mo­tor Speed­way, where Denny Ham­lin held off the Mon­ster En­ergy NASCAR Cup Se­ries’ two most dom­i­nant driv­ers this sea­son — Kyle Lar­son and Martin Truex Jr. — to win the Over­ton’s 301 and se­cure the team’s first play­off berth in the 19th race of the sea­son.

“We get in the play­offs, we get some play­off bonus points and we’re ready to go now, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Ham­lin said. “I feel like we need a lit­tle bit more speed out of our cars to be com­pet­i­tive week in, week out, but hon­estly this is a great place to start.”

The win didn’t ex­actly come easy for Ham­lin, who was forced to go to a backup car be­fore qual­i­fy­ing Fri­day. Though he still man­aged to grab the eighth start­ing spot, Ham­lin was un­con­vinced he’d have the speed he’d need to com­pete with Lar­son, Truex or even his team­mates.

“When I qual­i­fied, I was like, ‘This car is noth­ing like my pri­mary car. It’s no good,’ which is to be ex­pected with a backup car,” Ham­lin said. “But we did ev­ery­thing right to­day and some other guys fal­tered, which al­lowed us to get the win.”

Ham­lin, who last won at Rich­mond Race­way in Septem­ber 2016 and broke a per­sonal 28race win­less streak, said he needed to be per­fect in the fi­nal 20 laps to hold off hard-charg­ing Lar­son, who fin­ished se­cond for the seventh time this sea­son.

“It was key for me when it was 20 to go — I had over a two-se­cond lead,” Ham­lin said. “My thought was just, ‘How can I man­age a tenth of a lap.’ I knew he was go­ing to close, but I just had to man­age the gap and run a more con­ser­va­tive line. You just have to hit your marks and hit your lap times.”

Ham­lin did that and in the process took pres­sure off a JGR or­ga­ni­za­tion whose driv­ers won 11 times in the 2016 reg­u­lar sea­son but were sti­fled this year by a lack of speed, un­for­tu­nate on- track in­ci­dents and driver mis­takes through­out the first 18 races. But Sun­day felt like a re­turn to form.

Team­mate Matt Kenseth fin­ished fourth and briefly held the lead in the fi­nal stage only to be un­done by a fi­nal pit stop in which, as the leader, he took two tires while the rest of the field took four. Kyle Busch won the se­cond stage and seemed to have a car that could do battle with Lar­son and Truex, the points leader who won the open­ing stage. Busch led 95 laps and was in con­tention through the mid- way point of the fi­nal stage un­til he was hit with speed­ing penal­ties on con­sec­u­tive pit stops. Still, the speed of his No. 18 Toy­ota al­lowed him to rally to a 12th-place fin­ish, while rookie Daniel Suarez, the fourth mem­ber of JGR, matched his best re­sult of the sea­son with a sixth-place fin­ish.

JGR has seven races re­main­ing in the reg­u­lar sea­son to add to its mea­ger vic­tory to­tal, but Busch at least is well po­si­tioned to make the play­offs even with­out a win. The 2015 se­ries cham­pion left New Hamp­shire ranked third in points, best among win­less driv­ers.

Kenseth, in his fi­nal year with Gibbs and a free agent next year, also im­proved his stand­ing. His fin­ish al­lowed him to hold on to the fi­nal play­off trans­fer spot and to dis­tance him­self from his clos­est pur­suers — Joey Logano and rookie Erik Jones, who each had is­sues Sun­day and fin­ished 37th and 39th, re­spec­tively.

A clearly happy Ham­lin, though, wasn’t ready to pro­nounce that ei­ther he or JGR had re­claimed its dom­i­nant form.

“We’ve still got to get a lit­tle faster,” Ham­lin said af­ter the cel­e­bra­tion be­gan to ta­per off. “This doesn’t re­lieve any pres­sure. We still have to get bet­ter.”

HAM­LIN BY BRIAN FLUHARTY, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

To the vic­tor go the spoils, and in the case of the Over­ton’s 301 win­ner, a live New Eng­land lob­ster. Denny Ham­lin shows it off Sun­day cel­e­brat­ing his first win of the NASCAR sea­son.

BRIAN FLUHARTY, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

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