Avondale, AZ (Sports Network) - Denny Hamlin is back. At least it appears that way after he won Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Hamlin, in his second race with new crew chief Darian Grubb, conserved enough fuel late in the race and then held off a fierce challenge from Kevin Harvick during the closing laps to capture his 18th career Sprint Cup Series win but his first since last June at Michigan (23 races ago).
"We knew we were going to have a rebound year, and I told everyone we were," said Hamlin, who led a total of 61 laps, including the final 59. "You got to prove it. You got to go out and win these races. This is a great step in the right direction for our race team."
Harvick lost fuel pressure with less than two laps to go in the 312-lap race but managed to finish in the runner-up spot - 7.3 seconds behind Hamlin. He led the most laps with 88.
"If you cut the fuel mileage that close, you're figuring it right," Harvick said. "I'm proud of all my guys. When they come to a place like this where we struggled so much, and then race for a win, is hopefully what sets the tone for the year."
Hamlin had a banner season in 2010, scoring a series-high eight race wins and finishing second to Jimmie Johnson in the point standings. But Hamlin had a disappointing 2011 season, with only one victory and a ninth-place points finish to show for.
During the off-season, Hamlin was paired with Grubb, who guided Tony Stewart to his third Sprint Cup championship last year. Grubb was released from Stewart-Haas Racing shortly after winning the title. He then headed to Joe Gibbs Racing to replace Mike Ford as Hamlin's crew chief.
Hamlin and Grubb kicked off the season with a fourth-place finish in last Monday night's rain-delayed Daytona 500. Hamlin led the most laps in that race with 57.
With the win at Phoenix, Hamlin has taken a six-point lead over Greg Biffle, who finished third.
"We've never been in this position this early in the season," Hamlin said. "We've always struggled. We've taken our time - five or six races before we get our stride. This is not particularly my type of racetrack, especially with the new pavement. I'm usually better at saving tires. [Grubb] made me a winner today."
Johnson rebounded from a frustrating week at Daytona to finish fourth, while Brad Keselowski completed the top-five.
Johnson came to Phoenix minus-23 in points after finishing 42nd in the Daytona 500 and then NASCAR penalizing his Hendrick Motorsports team with a loss of 25 points later in the week. NASCAR officials found an illegal part (C-Post) on Johnson's Daytona 500 car during pre-qualifying inspection last month, prompting the sanctioning body to dock points and suspend crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec for six races. Knaus also received a $100,000 fine.
With Hendrick appealing the penalty, Knaus and Malec were allowed to participate in this weekend's race activities at Phoenix.
Johnson dominated in the early going, but halfway through the race, he experienced a wheel issue, forcing him to pit multiple times during a caution. He bounced back nicely from there.
"We'll take it," Johnson said. "I'm not really satisfied. I really felt like we had a car to win the race with. Unfortunately, things didn't work out there. We had a little hiccup early in the race, but we still rebounded back and got a very strong finish."
Johnson has 18 points now, placing him 38th in the rankings (-71 behind Hamlin).
Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, the pole sitter, and Joey Logano finished sixth through 10th, respectively.
Stewart fell two laps behind in the late going and ended up finishing 22nd. He shut his engine off to save fuel during a caution but could not restart the car, as he coasted slowly into the pits. He had more trouble restarting the car while in his pit stall.
03/04 20:43:36 ET