FORT WORTH, Texas — Denny Hamlin gingerly climbed out of his car in Victory Lane at Texas with his surgically repaired left knee throbbing in pain.
He realizes now how significant that unexpected moment really was.
"That was a turning point I felt in my season, coming here and winning against all odds pretty much," Hamlin said. "A race track we never won at, just coming and having the knee issue. It just seemed like there was a momentum boost for our team. As soon as we won Texas, the wins kept rolling."
Nearly seven months later, Hamlin returns to Texas Motor Speedway with only three races left in the closest three-way Chase for the Sprint Cup championship yet. He is only 14 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson and 24 ahead of Kevin Harvick.
Hamlin's seven wins in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Toyota are the most in Cup this season. Five of those victories came in a 10-race stretch that included his April win at Texas less than three weeks after knee surgery.
Hamlin qualified 30th for Sunday's 501-mile race on the fast 1½-mile, high-banked track where Elliott Sadler is the polesitter. That is one spot lower than where he started in April and behind the other top chasers — Johnson starts 17th and Harvick 26th.
"To have three drivers fighting for the championship right now, as close as it is, it's a good time for our sport," said Johnson, going for an unprecedented fifth championship in a row.
So would it be good to have a new champion? Someone other than Johnson in the familiar No. 48 Hendrick Chevrolet?
"I definitely think it would be good, it would add interest," Hamlin said. "You can't blame (Johnson) for winning, he's done a good job. It probably would be better if someone did take him off the top."
On the podium last week at Talladega with Johnson sitting right next to him, Harvick said it would be good for somebody else to win the Sprint Cup title. That elicited a response of "Who says?" from the smiling four-time defending champ, though Harvick reiterated his feelings in Texas.
"Well, I think people get tired of seeing the same guy winning," Harvick said. "I think in the end, it would just bring new attention to the sport because it wouldn't be the same old thing as Johnson won again. So, I wasn't joking."
The Chase certainly could remain tight for yet another week since Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick all have had success in Texas. All finished in the top 10 in April, when Johnson was the runner-up to Hamlin and Harvick was seventh. That was Johnson's 10th top-10 finish at Texas, while Hamlin and Harvick both have seven.
"I see the real possibility of it staying this close," Jeff Burton said. "I don't know who you would pick (in the Chase) honestly looking at it. If I was an oddsmaker, I don't know who I would pick. I think it is truly an equal race."
Joe Gibbs, the owner of Hamlin's cars, described it as "some heavyweights at the top of their game."
"I keep waiting for somebody to go away and they don't go away," Gibbs said.
Kurt Busch won at Texas last fall, when Johnson had a third-lap crash and spent more than 100 laps in the garage for repairs before a 38th-place finish that didn't keep him from handily winning the season title. Hamlin was the runner-up and Harvick was fifth in that race.
After winning four times and finishing fifth in the standings last year, Hamlin got off to a rough start this season. He was no better than 19th before winning at Martinsville in the sixth race.
He then had surgery to repair the torn ACL sustained playing basketball during the winter, and 10 days later in Phoenix gritted through the pain in a 30th-place finish. A week later came the win in Texas that pushed him to 11th in the standings, and things only got better from there.
Now with his fifth full season winding down, and his 30th birthday coming up Nov. 18, Hamlin could become a Cup champion. While he certainly wants to win, he maintains he isn't feeling any pressure to get it done now.
"I don't know that my biological clock is ticking. I have a few good years left to get it done if we don't this year," Hamlin said, smiling. "I feel like if we got the championship this year, it would be sooner than what I'd expect and probably younger in age than what I would expect. ... There's no sense of urgency that I need to get it done this year because I feel like the best is still probably yet to come as far as my potential."
Hamlin insists he doesn't even think about the Chase until it is time to go to the track each week.
"That's probably been a good tool for us and kept us relaxed through this thing, is not talking about it a lot," he said.
Harvick, still looking for a title in his 10th Cup season, takes a much different approach.
"I probably concentrate and think about it more now than I do during the season," Harvick said. "You want to make sure you don't screw anything up and make a mistake and at least give yourself a legitimate shot to race for it. And every week brings a new challenge."
Over the past five races, Harvick has finished no worse than eighth in his No. 29 Richard Childress Chevy, with three top-three finishes in the span.
Asked about his biggest concern over the final three races, Harvick said he didn't even know.
"I think it's just going to come down to whoever makes the biggest mistake. It may not even be a visible mistake; it may just be a mistake where you have a 15th-place day and that's just not going to be good enough," he said. "So I don't know that it's going to be a visible mistake like an accident or something big. Honestly, it's one lap at a time."