Welcome back, Denny Hamlin.

Where have you been?

It seems you disappeared a long time ago. We sent out an APB after Homestead last November, when you let Jimmie Johnson slip by you for the Cup championship on the final race of the season. You really weren't much of a player in Las Vegas for the awards ceremony. It was a bummer of a time anyway, since you were forced to witness the coronation of a king who wasn't you.

And then the season started, and Victory Lane became elusive — until finally you were anointed a champion last weekend in Michigan. By this time last season, you had already won five times.

"For me, if I go about eight weeks without winning, I'm wondering what the heck is going on," he said after winning Sunday's race.

A few other folks had wondered too, since Hamlin won a season-high eight times last season. He had fallen as low as 21st in points this season before the victory spiked him up to ninth overall with 11 races left in the regular season that ends in Richmond.

Hamlin's struggles reflect the parity in NASCAR this season, as Hamlin became the 10th different winner in 15 races.

"My realistic goal is top five in points, so we don't have to worry about any kind of wild cards once we get to Richmond," Hamlin said. "If I wouldn't have dug us such a big hole at the beginning of the year, we could be possibly fighting for the lead in points going into the Chase. But we just started so far behind, and it's going to be tough to do that."

Things had gotten so bad earlier that there was talk of replacing crew chief Mike Ford. And the weekend began on a controversial note when NASCAR officials confiscated "unapproved" unusually heavy oil pans on all three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. The incident resulted in NASCAR placing Ford and the other two crew chiefs on probation until Dec. 31. Each was fined $50,000. The penalties were announced Tuesday.

"It speaks volumes about these guys," Ford said before the penalties were announced. "We started the weekend off on a real down note, but everybody put it behind them and didn't let it affect what was about to happen. …This team usually comes out swinging when it's against the ropes."

Hamlin and the gang are fighting to stay in this thing, not wanting to jeopardize Hamlin's stretch of making the Chase every time since his 2006 rookie-of-the-year season.

"It's so tough because you know you belong in the top 10 and deserve a Chase spot, but the results don't show," Hamlin said after the race. "It's good to get over this hump. Hopefully it's the first of many."

gdiaz@tribune.com