Before climbing out of the car, Denny Hamlin took a moment to close his eyes and exhale. He had just completed his first full race in six weeks and on top of that, it was at Darlington, a tough track that hosts one of the Sprint Cup Series' longest races of the season.
And, oh yeah, he had just finished second.
"I'm tired. Just worn out," Hamlin said. "This is a tough, grueling race so there's nothing to hang our heads about coming up second again two years in a row."
In the previous race at Talladega, Hamlin started the race but during the first caution, handed the car over to Brian Vickers. On Saturday night, there was no relief driver in sight. Hamlin was going to attack what ended up as a 3 hour and 40 minute race on his own.
Had you not known about the crash at California that sidelined him since March 24 with a compression fracture of his L1 vertebra, you wouldn't have guessed watching Hamlin's race that he had spent significant time out of the car. He started sixth and stayed in that vicinity for the entire evening before capitalizing on teammate Kyle Busch's late misfortune to pass him for second with nine laps to go.
Now, after missing four races, Hamlin's quest to get into the top 20 and win enough races to snag one of the Chase's Wild Card berths begins in earnest. He's still 27th in the points standings, 226 behind Jimmie Johnson, but he's 61 points back of 20th place Jeff Burton. Plus, Hamlin says he's ready to go 600 miles in two weeks at Charlotte.
"Charlotte, believe it or not, the 600 miler is not as grueling as this race track," Hamlin said. "You have to stay so mentally tough for so long. And on top of the physical stuff you've got going on it's tough to overcome and luckily it was a good day for us."