The Sprint Cup championship was there, waiting for Denny Hamlin to grab the brass ring.
He failed, coming frustratingly, painfully short of his first Cup title, losing on the final race day of the year to Jimmie Johnson, who won the championship by 39 points. Hamlin edged Kevin Harvick by two points for second.
The understandable disappointment aside, however, 2010 was a career year for Hamlin, and it established him as probably Johnson’s primary combatant for seasons to come.
Hamlin won eight races, a series high (and two more than Johnson) for the year. He finished in the top five 14 times and in the top 10 on 18 occasions, rallying from some early-season trouble to challenge for the championship.
And Hamlin did all this despite a painful knee injury and, ultimately, spring-time knee surgery.
His season started with five straight disappointing races — all finishes of 17th or worse.
But Hamlin stopped that slide in fine fashion in the sixth race of the season, at Martinsville, by putting on one of the season’s grand performances.
Hamlin pitted on lap 493 and fell behind the other leaders, but, with fresh tires, he roared through the field in the closing laps, bumping and banging past Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon to win the race.
Later that week, Hamlin had surgery to the repair the knee he had injured in an off-season pickup basketball game.
He was in pain and obviously below par in the next race at Phoenix, where he finished 30th. But then Hamlin began a remarkable streak, winning four of the next eight races, including back-to-back wins at Pocono and Michigan, to jump from 18th in points to third.
He later won at Richmond, Martinsville and Texas and was rolling along smartly in the next-to-last race at Phoenix before fuel mileage cost him an almost certain top five and a big point lead going into the final race.
The narrow championship loss to Johnson will be fuel for next season, Hamlin said.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.