He's not quite 30 and looks 15, but Denny Hamlin is one tough customer.
And if the breaks fall his way for just two more races, he'll not only be the new NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, but a dynasty-buster.
Hamlin on Sunday won his second Texas race of 2010, and this time the victory propelled him to the top of the standings. Four-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson -- usually well in front at this point of the season -- trails Hamlin by 33 points. Kevin Harvick remains in the mix in third place, 59 points off the pace.
But the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver has now positioned himself as the man to beat, and he's had to work through some pain to get to this far.
During the preseason Hamlin tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while playing pick-up basketball, and by late March the pain had become overwhelming.
Hamlin decided he needed surgery, but vowed not to miss any races. It really didn't seem to matter at the time because when he was 19th in the standings and was being written off by some observers.
Yet he won at Martinsville, went under the knife following his victory and has been in the car every weekend.
"Watching what he went through, through his knee surgery, a major knee surgery, and then a week later you're in a car? That's probably as mentally tough as you're going to see in any sport," said Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs.
Hamlin's resolve has served him well also.
"For me, my goal was to be one of the most mentally tough guys behind the wheel," Hamlin said. "And that means when things don't go your way, you figure out a way to make it a positive or you figure out how can it fuel the fire in a good way."
Crew chief Mike Ford has watched Hamlin deal with just about every situation imaginable this season. And he says the pilot of the No. 11 ride -- and the team -- is the best in the business.
Ford says unlike some other teams, theirs is not intimidated by Johnson.
"Guys have tiptoed around them," Ford said. "You've watched them play mind games with people in the past, and I'm completely immune to that. I could care less. I'll be right in their face saying it doesn't matter.
"I think our race team is better than their race team, and I'm not going to tiptoe around them because of where they're at. I'm going to do what it's going to require for us to win a championship. Not that I'm playing dirty by any means, but take what's ours, and I'm not afraid to go toe to toe with them."
If Hamlin does seize the crown, he insists he'll be ready for the coronation.
"I think the years of experience, being in the Chase for, this is our fifth year now, and I've learned something during the course of each one that's gotten us to the point where we're at right now. Obviously our performance now is better than what it's been in the other Chases, but I feel like we've prepared for this moment for a long time.
"I've never questioned our strategy, even though our strategy has been questioned at times."