(SportsNetwork.com) - After taking its first break of the season this past weekend, the Sprint Cup Series returns to action later this week at Texas Motor Speedway.
Denny Hamlin won the most recent Sprint Cup race on March 29 at Martinsville. Hamlin passed his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth, for the lead with 28 laps to go and then held off a hard-charging Brad Keselowski in the closing laps for his 25th career victory in the series, including his fifth at the half-mile track in Southern Virginia.
With the win, Hamlin virtually guaranteed himself a spot in the 16-driver field for this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Kevin Harvick (Las Vegas and Phoenix), Joey Logano (Daytona 500), Jimmie Johnson (Atlanta) and Brad Keselowski (Fontana, California) also have won this season to all but guarantee themselves a position in the Chase.
"The win obviously takes a lot of pressure off of our FedEx (sponsor) team," Hamlin said. "Getting a victory so early in the season will allow us to work on our program, try some things and try to get better for the Chase. We are ahead of where we were at this point one year ago, and each week we seem to get a little bit more speed.
"Now, with a Chase berth pretty much locked up, we can take a few more chances to try to get more wins. We still have a lot of work to do, but hopefully Martinsville is a springboard for our team. We have a lot of good tracks coming up for us."
Martinsville marked the first time Hamlin, JGR and Toyota had been to victory lane for a Sprint Cup points race since last May at Talladega.
Hamlin is a two-time winner at Texas, sweeping both Sprint Cup races there during the 2010 season. He has finished no better than seventh at that track since then.
In last year's spring race at Texas, Hamlin ran among the top five with less than 10 laps remaining, but he was penalized for speeding on pit road, resulting in a 13th-place finish. He placed 10th in the Chase race there five months ago.
Saturday's Duck Commander 500 at Texas is the first Sprint Cup points race to run at nighttime this season.
Hamlin has won two consecutive races in the series twice in his career. He scored back-to-back victories at Pocono and Michigan nearly five years ago. Hamlin also accomplished the feat at Bristol and Atlanta during the 2012 season.
Since his 2006 rookie season, Hamlin has qualified for the Chase each year except 2013 when he missed four races early in the season due to a back injury (compression fracture) he suffered during an accident in the Fontana event.
This year's playoffs in NASCAR's top series begins on Sept. 20 at Chicagoland. If Hamlin qualifies for the Chase, it will be his ninth appearance in it.
"I'm excited about the summer months," he said. "Now that the stress is off, we can go out there and have fun and try some things and really let (crew chief) Dave (Rogers) just kind of do his job and work on some things that's going to make us better in the fall."
JGR shuffled its crew chief lineup this season, with Rogers joining Hamlin's No. 11 team after serving in the role for Kyle Busch's No. 18 team since 2010. Darian Grubb had guided Hamlin's efforts from 2012-14. Grubb is now the crew chief for JGR's new fourth team, the No. 19, driven by Carl Edwards.
Last year, Hamlin made it into the final four for the championship Chase race at Homestead. Kevin Harvick won the season finale and claimed his first Sprint Cup title, while Hamlin finished third in points with his seventh-place run at Homestead.
Hamlin is hoping this will be the year he wins his first championship in the series.
"We all know the bigger task at hand is that big trophy that they give out at the end of November," he said. "It's going to take a lot of work from a lot of people to get that trophy. You can only celebrate victories for so long."