Three years ago, Denny Hamlin departed Texas Motor Speedway on top of the NASCAR world. He had just picked up his eighth Sprint Cup Series victory of the season, equaling the number of wins he'd accumulated through his first four seasons combined. He led the series point standings with only two races left in the season and was poised to end Jimmie Johnson's run of four consecutive championships. Hamlin was a few weeks away from his 30th birthday and his future seemed limitless.
But that's when his career took an unexpected turn, and he has been struggling to get back on track ever since.
Hamlin seemingly wilted under the pressure of the 2010 championship run, finishing 12th and 14th in the final two races while Johnson remained as California cool as ever and motored to his fifth straight title. Hamlin looked dazed after the final race, and his hangover continued throughout 2011 as he won just once and plummeted to ninth in the final standings. And though he rebounded nicely with a five-win season in 2012, he managed only four top-10 finishes in the 10-race Chase and wound up sixth in the standings.
Any hopes Hamlin had of returning to championship form ended early this season when a crash at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., resulted in a back injury that forced him to miss the next four races. And though he has had a few good runs since his return, he was also involved in four more wrecks during a nine-race span, further aggravating his back. At one point. he went 16 consecutive races without a top-10 finish. In fact, Hamlin's new teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, Matt Kenseth, has more victories this season (seven) than Hamlin has top-10s (six).
So as the Cup Series returns to Texas Motor Speedway this week, the driver who was nearly a champion just three years ago is now nearly a forgotten man. Hamlin currently sits a distant 24th in the point standings, nestled between the likes of Casey Mears and David Ragan.
"How we've run these last six months or so has been very tough," Hamlin said last week. "We've definitely been sort of a non-factor, I guess you could say, as far as race wins are concerned. To think that (we are) going to be the favorite going into a track where we struggled to run top-10 lately would be farfetched."
While Hamlin said his back has been slowly improving, he's still far from feeling 100 percent healthy and is contemplating whether to undergo back surgery as soon as the season is over, though he would prefer to avoid that option.
"I still haven't met with the doctors to figure out the best option," Hamlin said. "I have been feeling so much better this last month or so that I'd like to steer away from surgery if possible. Obviously, I don't want to just cover up the pain with the treatments that I've been doing. That just numbs you a little bit. We still have an issue there that we have to address in the next month or so."
Regardless of how he approaches his back problems, Hamlin is convinced that a return to health will be followed shortly thereafter by a return to Victory Lane. He's on a 41-race winless streak (counting the four he sat out earlier this year) -- it's the longest drought of his career -- but he believes the slump will simply make his next win so much sweeter.
"The next time we get to Victory Lane, it will make me appreciate that moment that much more because it's been such a struggle," Hamlin said. "When you lose that edge of being at the top of your sport, it makes you fight that much harder to get back to the top. And so for us, the moment in which we become our old race team that we've been for the last 7-½ years and we start winning races again, it's just going to make me appreciate it that much more. It will be overwhelming once we win."
ANDERSON: Kenseth vs. Johnson -- Who has the edge down the stretch?
1. Matt Kenseth (2nd previously) -- Kenseth finished second at Martinsville on Sunday while Jimmie Johnson was fifth. That's the main reason why he gets the top spot over Johnson this week. Plus, that track has historically been one of Kenseth's worst, so holding his own there against an eight-time Martinsville winner is about the same as a victory.
2. Jimmie Johnson (1st) -- In reality, Johnson and Kenseth are tied in every meaningful way that you can analyze the two drivers. Since Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick are both fewer than 30 points behind the co-leaders, they are technically still in contention for the championship. But at this point, it is hard to imagine the title going to anybody other than Kenseth or Johnson.
3. Jeff Gordon (5th) -- Gordon won Sunday's race and still managed to gain only seven points on first place. To catch the co-leaders, he will have to pick up an average of nine points per race during the final three races. Gordon entered the Chase as the 13th driver, and while he will finish considerably better than that in the standings, he likely won't end up in the top spot.
4. Kevin Harvick (4th) -- Harvick sounded like an old man with his "These kids today" rant aimed at Austin Dillon after Saturday's Truck Series race, but he looked plenty spry on the track on Sunday, posting his fourth top-six finish in the past five races.
5. Kyle Busch (3rd) -- Once again, Busch finds himself out of contention for the championship during the final weeks of the season. He has 24 Cup victories during the past six years, but has never entered November within reach of first place in the standings.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (6th) -- Speaking of never being in contention for the championship. Earnhardt's eight-place run at Martinsville was about what we've come to expect from him. Gordon's victory on Sunday gives Hendrick Motorsports 42 Cup wins during the past five seasons. Earnhardt is responsible for only one of the 42.
7. Clint Bowyer (8th) -- Bowyer's third-place finish at Martinsville was his best showing in his last 16 races. Though he's winless this season, he has been solid most of the year. In fact, since his life spun out of control at Richmond in early September, Bowyer has posted an average finish of 10.6 in the seven Chase races.
8. Greg Biffle (9th) -- Quietly, very quietly, Biffle has put together a streak of 13 consecutive races in which he has finished no worse than 16th. The reason this hasn't received more attention is because he has finished better than ninth only once during that span.
9. Jamie McMurray (10th) -- Not only has McMurray been the best non-Chase driver since the playoffs began, he's also been better than several of the drivers who made the Chase. He has an average finish of 10.3 over the past six races. Meanwhile, Chase driver Kasey Kahne has an average finish of 21.7 during that span.
10. Carl Edwards (unranked) -- Remember that brief moment in early September when Edwards actually led the point standings? Now he's struggling to stay in the top 10. He's finished better than 10th only three times during the past 11 races.