His black No. 11 car charged to the finish line, his primary competition for the Sprint Cup Series title visible only in his rearview mirror. Denny Hamlin scored a statement victory, earned himself a big new cowboy hat, and sent a clear message at Texas Motor Speedway that he was prepared to end Jimmie Johnson's unprecedented run of four consecutive championships. And he did it all long before he won in the Lone Star State again on Sunday night.
No, the real moment of truth for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver had come seven months earlier, when there were questions about not only Hamlin's ability to contend for a championship at NASCAR's highest level, but his physical fitness to compete. No question, his victory Sunday was momentous, given that it vaulted him 33 points ahead of a suddenly vulnerable Johnson with only two events remaining in the season. But the real tide-turning triumph for the new Chase leader occurred at Texas in April, when he was only weeks removed from knee surgery, and the most difficult part of his race day was trying to get in and out of the car.
It's difficult to even remember now, as a fully healed Hamlin -- he even plays softball on Tuesday afternoons -- roars toward a potential championship that would alter the balance of power in his sport. But there was once a point where many wondered if he could make it through the season without missing a race, much less win eight of them. He was only two weeks removed from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, a procedure he had originally planned to put off until the end of the season, when the series visited Texas the first time. He walked gingerly. Getting his ramrod-straight left leg through his vehicle's window opening was a chore. He kept ice on the knee when he wasn't in the car. He was clearly hurting.
And he won, turning in a gutsy, Willis Reed-type effort that will become the signature moment of his first championship season if he can hold on over the final two weeks.
"That was a turning point I felt in my season, coming here and winning against all odds, pretty much," he said last weekend before completing his sweep at the 1.5-mile track, a place where he had never won until this season. " A race track we [had] 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. We don't know why, we don't to this day know why we went on a roll like we did there in the summer. All you can kind of point to is the momentum that this race gave for us."
That Texas victory ignited a post-surgery run of four wins in eight weeks, positioning Hamlin as the primary challenger to Johnson, and backing up the "I'm coming for you!" message he sent to the reigning champion at a party during postseason awards week last year. But prior to that, no one really knew what kind of a title run Hamlin would be able to mount. He had torn the ACL playing basketball in January, but he and his team decided rather immediately that surgery could wait until after the season. The injury seemed to be only a minor inconvenience when he won at Martinsville in late March. But during the ensuing off week, concerns about potentially doing further damage to the knee sent him in for an arthroscopic procedure to repair it.
And then days later came Phoenix, when the agony of post-op was evident in Hamlin's stony, teeth-gritting visage every time he limped from his transporter to his race car. The bulky wrapping around the knee was plainly evident beneath his firesuit. He had stitches removed and fluid drained to allow him a little more flexibility, but the pain was still clearly there. He had Casey Mears on hand as a standby driver, but he gutted out all 375 laps despite falling deep into the pack because of fender damage and a battery problem. He never mentioned how much he was hurting over the radio, but he was -- "More than I can tell you," he said afterward. A driver once called something of a complainer by fans saw his reputation change overnight.
The net result, though, was a 20th-place finish that left him 18th in the points. It would be weeks before the knee returned to anything approaching normal. Tough guy or not, there seemed only so much Hamlin could do, trying to wheel a race car at a point in his recovery when most patients still had their leg elevated and on ice. A bona fide championship run? It would probably have to wait until 2011.
Then came Texas, and everything changed.
"When I decided to get it done, I was 20th or so in points, and I knew it was too early to panic because our team never really runs good until five or six races into the season," Hamlin remembered. "I knew our performance, every time we get to the spring Martinsville race, always seems to turn at that point. I didn't know the impact that the knee situation would have, and obviously winning two weeks after having the surgery, I knew it was not going to be an issue. If I could win there at Texas, a track I'd never won at before, then it was going to be a non-issue. It has been a long year in the sense of a lot of ups and downs, and all that obviously has given us some good fuel."
Enough to surge into the championship lead, and maybe even end the longest stretch of consecutive championships that NASCAR has ever seen. Johnson isn't done -- "It's far, far from over," the champ said Sunday night -- and Kevin Harvick is still lurking, 59 points back. But Hamlin is in control, and his physical limitations now seem part of the ancient past. He's back to doing most of the physical activities he did before the surgery. The timing of the procedure was planned so the recovery would essentially be behind him by the fall, when the championship chase reached its apex.
"I feel like that was a good decision for us," Hamlin said, even though many raised skeptical eyebrows at the time. No more. It all changed after a victory at Texas, just not the one you might think.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.