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Joe Gibbs Racing finds return to form with New Hampshire performance

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Joe Gibbs Racing finds return to form with New Hampshire performance,

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 continued, 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.”

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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 28-race winless streak, said he needed to be perfect in the final 20 laps to hold off the 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 midway 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 onto 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.”

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