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DOVER, Del. -- Denny Hamlin is cautiously optimistic and highly motivated -- a combination that whether intended or not, is proving a successful strategy for him since returning from a four-race layoff to mend a broken back.
Hamlin has been one of the hottest drivers in the Sprint Cup Series the past month -- scoring top-five finishes in his first two full races back and winning the pole for Sunday's FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway (1 p.m. ET, FOX) -- the second straight week he topped qualifying.
Hamlin was runner-up at Darlington his first complete race back and led laps again last week in NASCAR's longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. It has been his best two-race combination of the season and the first time he has had back-to-back top-fives since last August when he won consecutive races at Bristol, Tenn., and Atlanta.
Yet as encouraging as these statistics are, Hamlin -- a perennial Chase contender -- is still reticent to put himself back in elite company just yet.
"I think there's been a lot of things that have helped us perform the way we have the last couple weeks," Hamlin said. "It's almost too small of a sample size to draw a conclusion that we are strong. I think we get past here (Dover) and in a few more weeks if we have all top-fives then I'd say that things are looking good for us."
"I knew that I was going to have to do what I needed to do to be better when I got back," Hamlin said, "Obviously, when you have some time off you can either rest and relax or you can go to work and figure out what you can do to be a better race car driver. I think I'm better now than I was beforehand. I think that's helped our performance."
It has been part philosophical shift and part practical application for Hamlin, who says he began studying film -- much like a football player -- during his downtime, and thinks that has benefitted his qualifying performances.
"I think that when you're motivated like we are right now and knowing what we have to do to make the Chase, I think that helps," Hamlin said. "The qualifying, studying ? all those things help.
"Whether it's a hundredth of a second here and there, you add it all up and you got something at the end that you can win with.
"I think you've got to identify your weaknesses. I mean you're not going to just get magically better at a place unless your crew chief magically hits a setup and you're great. I think that the only way a crew chief is going to do that is if you give him the right information. I don't know that I've given the right information throughout my career.
"The competition is so good now that you have to do everything you can to get an edge on anyone. So, I just try to go that extra mile."
Before Hamlin's last-lap accident at California -- he wrecked with Joey Logano while they were racing for the win -- Hamlin was ranked fourth in the standings.
He missed the next four races diagnosed with a compression fracture in the L1 vertebra (lower back) and is now 24th in the championship standings -- 53 points behind 20th-place Tony Stewart -- entering Sunday's race.
He must finish in the top-20 in points and collect at least a win or two to stand a chance at one of the two Chase for the Sprint Cup Wild Card berths.
And now at the halfway mark before the 12-driver Chase field is set, there is palpable urgency to Hamlin's task.
"I think our only play is to be aggressive," Hamlin said. "I think that to come here and try to get a points day is irrelevant because if we don't win then we're really not accomplishing much.
"I feel like we're hitting our stride," Hamlin said. "We're running really well at all different types of race tracks.
"Overall, I'm pretty happy. We still need to get those race wins. Not going to panic because we got some great race tracks ahead of us."
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