Hamlin ready to drive whole race

Denny Hamlin won’t be holding back this weekend at the Track too Tough to Tame.

After he suffered a fractured vertebra in a crash on March 24, Hamlin missed four races before starting at Talladega Superspeedway last Sunday with Brian Vickers stepping in for relief.

But Hamlin, who considers Darlington Raceway “one of the toughest, physically challenging races that we have — not only by distance, but the amount of mental focus that you have to have” intends on going the distance in Saturday night’s Southern 500.

"I don’t think there’s any doubt we’ll go the whole way,” Hamlin said. “I stayed in the car for about an hour and a half straight with no issues during practice. Nothing was uncomfortable, nothing hurt or nothing was sore, so I’m pretty comfortable I can make it the three or three and a half hours that it’s going to take to run the race."

Hamlin enters the weekend 31st in the driver point standings. His easiest path to continue his eight consecutive appearances in the NASCAR Chase to the Sprint Cup is by earning a wild-card spot. For Hamlin to execute that feat, he’d have to make up the 76-point deficit between himself and 20th-place Kurt Busch and likely score at least two victories over the next 16 races.

How does Hamlin propose accomplishing that task?

"Maybe try harder – I don’t know – spend a little bit more time debriefing, be a little bit more observant,” Hamlin said.

“Really, probably treat these next 16 weeks or so – whatever we have until the Chase – as if it’s a Chase race. I know during the Chase we typically spend a little bit more time talking about our cars in our debriefs and we spend a little bit more time together. Not that we discredit the regular season, but that’s really the go time. That’s when you’ve really got to perform and you’ve got to be on top of your game.

“In the situation that we’re in, we’re going to have to do that for a substantial amount of weeks in a row.”

Still, Hamlin is motivated by the task of a comeback. The last time Hamlin was injured – and experienced reconstructive surgery on his left knee to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in March 2010 – he finished a career-high second in the point standings. And if the team is going to experience setbacks, as was the case last weekend when Vickers was caught up in a wreck and finished 34th, Hamlin would rather be held responsible for the results.

"I love the challenge,” Hamlin said. “I mean, really for me the less realistic it is, the bigger challenge that it is for me, so I actually don’t mind…We didn’t get that much last week so it’s going to be all on my shoulders to make the run towards the Chase. We fell back an additional three spots last week, so we have a huge, huge hole that we’ve got to dig out of, but there’s nothing that wins can’t fix. That’s the bottom line.”

Hamlin received encouraging news from his doctors this week that his back is healing faster than expected. In addition to Hamlin’s fractured vertebra, he also deals with chronic back pain from torn discs.

"Everything looks really good,” Hamlin said. “Surprisingly, in the 12 days that I had in between scans – I think it was about 12 days – it was dramatic. It almost healed twice as much in those 12 days as it did in the first 30 days. I mean, it was a dramatic change. …

“I think we’re safe enough now to where we can, I can, take a few jabs here and there."