Denny Hamlin takes Bristol for his third win of the season

Denny Hamlin, Chase points leader?

If you were to think of Denny Hamlin's 2012, it wouldn't be crazy if the first thing that came to mind was Hamlin's fiery escapades at Michigan at Watkins Glen, summer issues that resulted in 34th place finishes.

But that would be overlooking Hamlin's wins at Phoenix, the second race of the season and at Kansas, the eighth. And Saturday night at Bristol, the 24th race of the season, Hamlin grabbed win number three, meaning that as of now, he's set to start the Chase for the Sprint Cup Series tied atop the standings.

Recently, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson have been the two most heavily mentioned as favorites for the 10 race dash for the championship, and last week at Michigan, Greg Biffle made it a point to include his team in the championship discussion. Now? Hamlin should be included in the discussion too.

[Related: Tony Stewart flings helmet at Matt Kenseth]

In the 16 races since that Kansas win, Hamlin has three second place finishes, but also has six finishes outside the top 20 thanks to a myriad of problems and circumstances -- a primary reason he hasn't been in the "serious contender" championship discussion. And early in Saturday's race, an incident on pit road made seven in 17 outside the top 20 look like a strong possibility.

While leaving his pit stall, Hamlin's made contact with Landon Cassill as Cassill was entering his. Cassill's left front bumper smashed directly into Hamlin's right front tire. The impact, while at low speeds, was a direct hit. Soon after, Hamlin radioed to his crew that he was afraid that the toe had been bent.

But on the ensuing restart, Hamlin held his ground, and over the next few hundred laps, slowly crept up through the top 10. If the toe had been bent, it certainly wasn't affecting the performance of his car. On lap 461, thanks to a two tire stop, Hamlin passed Carl Edwards (who was trying to stretch his fuel mileage after deciding to not pit with the lead with 85 laps to go) for the lead and quickly pulled away.

[Related: Danica Patrick wrecked again at Bristol]

Yeah, it was a fairly anticlimactic final 40 laps of a race that started with a Ken Schrader gesture and featured a Tony Stewart helmet toss and a Danica Patrick finger wag, but that was a-OK for Hamlin, who called the win the biggest of his career. Plus, it overshadowed his dancing performance of "The Wobble" in the pre-race driver introductions, which led Hamlin to say after the race that "if you're going to dance like a dumbass you have to drive like a badass." (Bristol is the only track on the Sprint Cup circuit where the drivers pick their own entrance music and have a chance to say something to the crowd.)

And that, he did. Given the parity throughout the Chase field, Hamlin may want to consider dancing during driver intros before every race.

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