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Hamlin to start race -- but when will he finish?

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TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Denny Hamlin spent part of Friday afternoon practicing climbing out of his No. 11 car through a roof hatch his team installed in the top of the vehicle. And yet, it's still unclear when he'll actually use it in Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Hamlin was back behind the wheel at the 2.66-mile facility, taking his first laps since suffering a compression fracture in a lumbar vertebra March 24 in a final-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver made 17 laps in Friday's opening practice before turning the vehicle over to teammate Brian Vickers, who has piloted the car for three of the four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events the regular driver has missed while recovering from his injury.

The plan is for the two to make a similar swap under caution Sunday, with Hamlin scrambling out through the roof hatch that teams by rule have the option to install. But exactly when that will happen remains uncertain -- Hamlin has been cleared by doctors and NASCAR to run the whole event, and his team plans to play the mid-race switch by ear.

"There's going to be a caution at some point, and I'd like to get out and ensure myself of one more week of healing," said Hamlin, who by starting the event will earn all the championship driver points accumulated in the race and bolster his hopes of challenging for a Wild Card in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. And yet, his joy over being back in the vehicle is obvious -- had crew chief Darian Grubb not ordered him to get out in practice, Hamlin said, he'd have driven the thing until it ran out of gas.

"I am the most unenthusiastic person when it coms to superspeedway racing, much less practicing," said Hamlin, who would up seventh fastest in opening practice Friday, and did not participate in the final session. "But last night it was tough to sleep, knowing I was going to get back in the car for the first time. This is an exciting time."

Doctors originally projected Hamlin would be out until next weekend's event at Darlington Raceway, but he tried to accelerate that timetable and return two weeks early at Richmond International Raceway, his hometown track. His physicians didn't see what they wanted on a scan preceding that event, sidelining Hamlin for another week. But Thursday, NASCAR confirmed that the 22-time race winner -- who has never missed a Chase since his full-time Cup career began in 2007 -- was OK to return at Talladega. Hamlin is limiting himself to encourage another week of healing, and plans to return to full activity at Darlington.

"There is going to be risk. There is risk," he said. " I don't know the exact science, I don't know the exact percentages, nobody knows. That's what makes this really, really hard. With bone healing, it doesn't mater if you break your arm, or break your leg, or whatever -- a bone takes a year to heal. That's realistic. But as far as I've been told and understand, it would take such a significant hit that you would probably be injured from it even if you were 100 percent healthy. ... The risk is so minimal, it's almost not even there."

In fact, Hamlin equates starting Sunday's race to a quarterback taking the snap and then taking a knee. "We are very much going to minimize our risk of reinjuring ourselves, which gives us one more week to heal," he said. Hamlin does have another scan scheduled for next week to ensure his recovery is progressing, though he expects no surprising news out of that procedure.

In the car, Hamlin said he felt no discomfort at all -- the torn knee ligament he came back from in 2010 was much more painful behind the wheel, he said. The bigger issue is exiting the vehicle, which requires a degree of twisting and wiggling that can be painful. Toward that end, the No. 11 car has been outfitted with a roof hatch, which NASCAR made optional several years ago, and Michael Waltrip famously popped out of after winning here in 2003. Hamlin said he and Vickers have the driver exchange down to 1 minute and 6 seconds, which should prevent them from losing a lap if they do it under yellow.

Friday, Hamlin didn't say exactly when he'd get out of the car -- and even hedged just a little when asked if he'd definitely get out before the end of the race. His return comes at a 2.66-mile track where drivers often safely cruise around at the back of the pack, but also one infamous for massive pileups like the one that unfolded on the final lap last fall. Hamlin knows the Big One is a possibility, even if he tries to play it safe.

"It definitely could happen," he said. "We've seen it here at this race track on Lap 1, we've seen it on the last lap. I'm obviously going to put myself in what I believe is a safe position. Obviously, you can't help things like blown tires and things that could happen. But the equivalency of our risk this weekend will be (a quarterback) taking a knee."

Next week, taking a knee turns into an all-out aerial assault. Hamlin is currently 71 points out of 20th place in the standings, the cutoff for Wild Card qualification. Hamlin said he feels confident he can get back into the top 20, but knows race victories are the key to everything. In the Chase's Wild Card era, no driver with at least two wins has missed the playoff. Hamlin sees that as his goal, and plans to take an aggressive approach over the remaining weeks of the regular season to get there.

"We're going to have to make a big, big run these next 17 weeks if we're going to be part of the postseason," he said. "I'm excited about the challenge. Our Chase has got to start right now. We've got to perform each week like it is a Chase race, and do everything we can to get wins. Because if we don't win, it really doesn't matter."

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