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 in April really was.
"That was a turning point I felt in my season, coming here and winning against all odds pretty much," Hamlin said. "A racetrack 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 for today's Texas 500 amid Sprint Cup's closest three-way Chase for the Championship yet. He is 14 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson and 24 ahead of Kevin Harvick.
Hamlin's seven wins in the No. 11 Toyota are the most in Cup this season. Five of those came in a 10-race stretch that included the one at Texas, less than three weeks after knee surgery.
"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, trying to extend his record with a 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 that, Hamlin and Harvick agree.
"Well, I think people get tired of seeing the same guy winning," Harvick said.
The Chase could be tight for yet another week — Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick all have had success in Texas. All finished in the top 10 in April, when Johnson was second and Harvick seventh.
"I see the real possibility of it staying this close," Jeff Burton said. "… If I was an oddsmaker, I don't know who I would pick. I think it is truly an equal race."
Joe Gibbs, owner of Hamlin's cars, described it as "some heavyweights at the top of their game."
Asked about his biggest concern in 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," he said. "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. "…Honestly, it's one lap at a time."