Gibbs hoping Hamlin's victory the breakthrough team looking for
Denny Hamlin had run well enough to win most of the season. That he finally did win at New Hampshire was a relief to him and the Joe Gibbs Racing team, writes David Newton.
LOUDON, N.H. -- J.D. Gibbs stood in the garage before Sunday's Nextel Cup race at New Hampshire International Speedway fending off reports about his organization moving from General Motors to Toyota and deflecting questions about his interest in Kyle Busch.
Had it been a few weeks earlier, he would have been under the gun about the team's pursuit of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After nearly 10 minutes of lighthearted interrogation, Gibbs backed away from the crowd of reporters and let out a sigh.
"It would be nice to just win a race," he said.
A few hours later, the president of Joe Gibbs Racing found himself in Victory Lane showering Denny Hamlin and the rest of the No. 11 team with champagne.
"It's a big deal," said Gibbs, whose team had been shut out during the first 16 races despite sometimes dominating performances. "We've run so well so long, so many issues popped up here and there. You know, if you run that well long, you're going to win your share of races.
"But it's hard waiting, being patient for us."
Nobody struggled more with patience Sunday than Hamlin, last year's rookie of the year. He kept radioing crew chief Mike Ford to take only two tires on pit stops to help get him track position.
Each time, Ford told him to "just wait."
Then, on the final stop with about 48 laps remaining, Ford made the call that sent Hamlin from fourth to first.
Hamlin, who lost a chance to win several races this season because of pit-road mishaps that resulted in a complete overhaul of his crew, held off a hard-charging Jeff Gordon over the final laps to give JGR its first victory since Tony Stewart won at Texas last November.
"We were fortunate enough we were far enough into the top five that when we did take two, we were going to take the lead," said Hamlin, who came off pit road ahead of Martin Truex Jr., who finished third.
"If we had come out second, we probably weren't going to win the race."
This part of the season is all about winning for Hamlin -- second in the points standings behind Gordon -- and Stewart, who finished 12th to stay sixth in points.
The points will be distributed evenly for the top 12 drivers when the 10-race championship chase begins here in September. The only thing separating them will be the 10 bonus points given for each victory.
Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson lead the series with four wins each, meaning until today they had a 40-point lead over Hamlin and Stewart.
Hamlin can't believe more teams in his position didn't gamble on two tires.
"Up until three weeks ago, we were taking top-three finishes and saying what a great day," he said. "When we got to 10 races to go [until the Chase], we knew we had a big lead where we could throw caution to the wind.
"We're still going to have that mentality. We're going to continue to throw out Hail Marys and see how it lands for us. It's all about getting more and more bonus points. We're going to hopefully close that gap to [Gordon] and [Johnson]."
Heading into Sunday, Hamlin and Stewart ranked third and fourth behind Gordon and Johnson in laps led. But in wins, they trailed those drivers 8-0 and Hendrick Motorsports overall 10-0.
The frustration ran so high that Hamlin nearly had meltdowns after a couple of top-three finishes. Stewart was so upset after last week's sixth-place finish at Infineon Raceway that he knocked over a trash can.
When it comes to racing, I'm as competitive as Tony. That's the benchmark for competitiveness. It doesn't get any higher than him. I can be the first one to throw something if I finish second. If we were to have finished second today, we wouldn't have accomplished much.
"When it comes to racing, I'm as competitive as Tony," Hamlin said. "That's the benchmark for competitiveness. It doesn't get any higher than him. I can be the first one to throw something if I finish second.
"If we were to have finished second today, we wouldn't have accomplished much. It's just a confidence booster for this race team."
It could be a confidence booster for the entire organization.
"Generally, for some reason we start later in the season before we run real well," Gibbs said. "But we've been running well early this year and haven't gotten the wins.
"For the whole team, this is encouraging."
Now it's all about building momentum.
"I didn't want to start too far behind the Hendrick cars as far as the Chase is concerned," Hamlin said. "This Chase is going to come down to 10 or 15 points. I firmly believe that.
"We're not going to be able to start 50 or 60 points down and overcome it without them having problems."
That's why Gibbs was spraying champagne with the enthusiasm of a kid in a water balloon fight.
"We've been so close so long," Gibbs said. "That's why we do this, to win."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.