At no point during this season has Jimmie Johnson denied Denny Hamlin is a legitimate threat to his bid for a fifth consecutive championship.
And right about now, everyone better believe him.
"The No. 11 certainly can be the champion at the end of the year," Johnson told reporters in Michigan on Sunday. "I think it is too early to really form an opinion for anyone. But you can't deny the victories and laps led and what they have been doing."
Hamlin's fifth win of the season brought him to within 47 points of leader Kevin Harvick. Hamlin's teammate Kyle Busch is second, 22 behind Harvick.
And Busch can tell Hamlin and everyone else that piling up wins before the Chase doesn't always mean anything.
In 2008 Busch won eight races before the Chase, none in it and finished 10th.
Ten things we learned this week:
1. When Johnson can make up six positions after the final restart, it's foolish to think his championship bid is over or even troubled.
2. That said, Hendrick Motorsports is in a little slump these days. For that team, at least. Mark Martin is 12th in the points standings, Johnson and Gordon are sixth and seventh, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 14th.
3. Earnhardt was very pleased with his seventh-place finish, but to say he's beginning a turnaround would be foolish at this point. It was Earnhardt's first top 10 in his last seven races.
4. NASCAR is changing the look of its front splitter to make the car more appealing.
5. In his dig at Casey Mears, Scott Speed said what a lot of outsiders have been saying about Mears for years. "Whenever you're at Hendrick and Richard Childress Racing and then you still don't have a ride and haven't done anything, there's no real excuses after that, but whatever," Speed told reporters.
6. Which brings us to the best headline of the week, courtesy of Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR blog, "Red Bull gives you wings, but not much team spirit."
7. This is the year of teammates getting in slap fights.
8. Kasey Kahne notched a second-place finish in Michigan — his first single-digit finish since Texas in April.
9. Race teams were delighted by the incredibly short time Sunday's race took (a little more than 21/2 hours). Unfortunately for NASCAR, it gave birth to this stat: It took longer to repair the Daytona 500 pothole than it did to run 400 miles at Michigan.
10. The cast of the movie "Grown Ups" is everywhere.
-- Tania Ganguli