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TALLADEGA, Ala. (May 4, 2014) -- Denny Hamlin scored his first victory in a restrictor-plate points race, winning Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway when the caution flew on the final lap to freeze the field.
Leading on a restart with two laps remaining, Hamlin staved off challenges by Kevin Harvick and runner-up Greg Biffle to claim his first victory of the 2014 season.
Clint Bowyer finished third, followed by Brian Vickers, A.J. Allmendinger, Paul Menard, Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Hamlin won the 2006 Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway but hadn't visited victory lane at Daytona and Talladega in a points race during his career in NASCAR's premier series. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver cemented a provisional spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup despite having missed a race with an eye injury earlier this season.
"We really just want to win races, regardless of the implications of what this means for the Chase," Hamlin said. "We just strategically saw things were getting heavy in the middle part of the race ... and we just played our cards right."
"I'm still a short-track guy. Those are my roots. But we've come a long way. We couldn't finish 22nd in a restrictor-plate track, now we know we have the cars and the skills to win."
Hamlin won at the track where he returned to racing a year ago after sitting out four races to recover from a broken back suffered in a March 2013 accident at Auto Club Speedway.
The final dash to the checkered was set up by a yellow for a Carl Edwards spin.
"I'm not sure if I had a strategy," Biffle said of the final restart. "I didn't have any teammates up front to work with. But I had a chance at (Hamlin) getting back into (turn) one; Clint (Bowyer) gave me a huge push. I was backing up on the backstretch to get a run on him then the caution came out, and I was just like dang it."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led early in the race but chose to hang back and try to find a different line when the pack began to close as the race wound down, led a group on the outside lane with a handful of laps to go. This year's Daytona 500 winner said he tried to make a push before Josh Wise pulled out in front of him.
"Anytime somebody jumps out in front of you like that, it just kills you. I tried to give him a push, but I knew he didn't have the car to make it back up there. ... You have to have the track position at the end and we just didn't have it. We tried to manage a strategy where we weren't giving up 25 positions at the end of the race, but we just couldn't get back up there, even with this great car we brought from Daytona."
The last major pileup occurred on Lap 174, triggered by Jimmie Johnson losing control of his No. 48 Chevrolet. The wreck also collected defending race winner David Ragan and Joey Logano, who had won two of the past three races.
Brad Keselowski, who earned his first victory at Talladega five years ago, was involved in two of the race's most memorable cautions. While attempting a pass of leader Danica Patrick on Lap 14, his No. 2 Ford made contact with the right front of the No. 10 Chevrolet. Keselowski skidded up the banking but didn't collect any other cars.
He fell six laps down, though, and wasn't as lucky while racing hard to try to get a lap back on Lap 137.
Keselowski spun out in the pack, triggering a 14-car crash that also collected Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
"I don't know if I just busted my butt on my own or lost a tire, but I feel bad for everyone that got torn up," said Keselowski, who also won at Talladega in 2012. "We had a really fast Team Penske Ford, but I just feel bad for the whole team.
"I was trying to get my lap back, and those guys are trying to lead laps. There's obviously a long way to go, and I just had to get to the front and try to stay up there to try and get my lap back. I was racing really hard for that, but for some reason the car took off on me and I spun out."
Kenseth, who was involved in a spat while battling for the lead with Keselowski late in last week's race at Richmond International Raceway, was crticial of Keselowski's decision-making in both instances.
"Brad made a pretty bold move early – mind-boggling move – going in front of Danica and got away with it," Kenseth said.
"He was driving really, really, really aggressively to try to get back up there. I didn't realize he was that many laps down, so I'm not sure what the strategy was. … If it was the other way around, and it was anybody else except for him, we'd all be getting lectured."
Gordon said Keselowski wasn't to blame for the first incident ("Danica made a mistake early … she just misjudged him") but was at fault for the second yellow.
"I had seen him for several laps driving over his head being pretty aggressive," Gordon said. "I knew he was (several) laps down, but he wasn't doing anybody any favors, nor himself. Then ultimately that was a wreck. I would like to see the video to know exactly what happened. Somebody might not have given him an inch there, but he was certainly taking probably more than he should have been."