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There isn’t anywhere for Hamlin to go but up, and he can’t do that unless he believes it’s possible. He’s the guy who won eight races last season and nearly stopped Jimmie Johnson from collecting a fifth consecutive title, so there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to turn this around.

Except, of course, that every attempt to step it up this season has failed.

The many bumps for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team have ranged from engine problems, accidents, a confiscated oil pan and lug nuts that lacked the proper amount of glue. With a month to go in the regular season, Hamlin had dropped to 14th in the standings _ his lowest ranking that late on the schedule of his entire career _ and he had to claw his way into the final wild-card berth for the Chase.

Then came Monday at Chicago, where nothing seemed to go right.

Hamlin struggled with the balance of his Toyota in the early part of the race, then had to make an unscheduled pit stop for what he believed was a loose wheel. The rest of the day was a maddening push of trying to get back on the lead lap, and Hamlin never could quite get himself in position. Then, in a frantic race with other drivers trying to get in position for NASCAR’s free pass back onto the lead lap, Hamlin made contact with another car, causing a flat tire.

“It was just a disappointing day for us,” he said.

It’s going to be really difficult to win the championship this year against Johnson, Harvick, Jeff Gordon and teammate Kyle Busch.

But Tony Stewart proved Monday that everybody is a title contender when, days after crossing himself off a list of viable threats to win the championship, he snapped a 32-race winless streak with his victory at Chicago.

That’s what it will take for Hamlin, who must be perfect the next nine weeks to have any chance at all. That might be too much to ask, but he’s got to believe anything is possible from here on out.

If he fails, he always can look back at that ill-fated qualifying lap at Daytona as a warning sign that this was going to be miserable year. Chances are, though, he’ll sleep better if he can honestly say he went down fighting to overcome everything that got in his way.