DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The challenges keep coming for Denny Hamlin in his long-odds quest to qualifying for NASCAR's postseason. The most immediate obstacle: 500 miles on one of the oldest, harshest race tracks on the Sprint Cup Series schedule.
Hamlin said Friday that he plans on going the full distance Saturday night at Darlington Raceway, marking his first full race since suffering a back injury in a last-lap crash March 24 at Auto Club Speedway. He said his Joe Gibbs Racing team hasn't planned on keeping a relief driver on standby and that his No. 11 Toyota for the weekend is not equipped with a roof hatch for a smoother driver change.
The here-and-now hurdles for Hamlin are not just the rigors of a grueling race that regularly can take in the neighborhood of four hours to run, but the exacting mental toll of riding up against the speedway's ever-present outside wall for that span.
"I'll be able to make it physically, but it's a matter of whether I can keep my mind engaged through whatever maybe physical pains I have toward the end to keep our finishes good and obviously have a chance to win," Hamlin said. "Until we get to the end of the race, I don't know, but I know running the hour and a half straight practice was a good test for me, and I really at the end of it, felt no worse for the wear. So I think that if I can make it past this one -- the whole race, have a good finish, maintain focus all the way through -- then I'll definitely be fine for the rest of the year."
Hamlin's spirits were buoyed this week by his most recent visit to the doctor, which showed significant healing of his fractured vertebra.
"Everything looks really good," he 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, so I think we're on the tail end of it now for the most part and had it not made that huge stride again, I probably would have not ran the All-Star Race and turned it over to probably Brian (Vickers) or what have you, but I think we're safe enough now to where we can ... I can take a few jabs here and there."
The longer-range challenge will be keeping ailve his hopes of making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Hamlin has made the Chase every year of his career in NASCAR's top series; only Jimmie Johnson's 9-for-9 postseason streak is better than Hamlin's run of seven in a row.
To make it eight, he'll need to make up ground from his current rank of 31st in the driver standings to put himself in position for one of two wild-card berths in the Chase. He started last week's race at Talladega Superspeedway before giving way to Vickers, but a crash soon after the driver change only earned Hamlin points for a 34th-place finish.
He'll need to collect at least one win and move back into the 11th-to-20th range in Sprint Cup points to make that happen, making the margin of error that much smaller before the postseason field is set at Richmond International Raceway, 16 races from now.
"Really, (I'll) probably treat these next 16 weeks or so -- whatever we have until the Chase -- as if it's a Chase race," Hamlin said. "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."
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