DARLINGTON, S.C. -- It was a sore Denny Hamlin who walked into the media center at Darlington Raceway, with 500 more grueling miles on his odometer than he started with Saturday night. It prompted him to crack wise that he had the back of a 60-year-old.
With a stellar runner-up finish in hand, it was a bit easier for the 32-year-old to laugh in the face of pain.
Hamlin's Hail Mary attempt to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup received its first major answer to prayer Saturday night at Darlington, as he went the distance in his first full race since suffering a back injury March 24. More importantly, he made a substantial four-position leap in the standings to bolster his Chase hopes against steep odds.
Hamlin said on the eve of the Bojangles' Southern 500 that the race, one of the most physically and mentally demanding on the circuit, would be a true test of his ability to compete for championship eligibility the rest of the regular season. Saturday night, he passed.
"Really it's like starting your season over with," Hamlin said after his best finish of the season. "To start it back over at Darlington for 500 miles, I mean, there's some muscles that have gotten weak. I've gotten pretty sore and tired, mentally tired as well. We'll have a couple weeks really to rest until the next long event and we'll be good to go then."
Hamlin missed four consecutive races after his last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway, then was credited with a 34th-place finish after starting the race last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway before giving way to relief driver Brian Vickers. In reviving his season at Darlington, he followed through on his stated intention to complete the entire distance without a fill-in.
Hamlin did more than just finish, picking off positions during a flurry of caution periods in the late going. He was running seventh when the night's second yellow flag flew on the 302nd lap, then gained two more spots in the pits and two more on the track before the event's final restart.
From there, he benefited from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch's late fade after cutting a right-rear tire on a piece of debris, moving to second place behind race winner and fellow JGR stablemate Matt Kenseth.
A win would've been critical to helping Hamlin reach one of his two objectives in qualifying for a wild-card berth in the Chase, but he inched toward one of his other goals -- finishing in the 11th-to-20th range at the end of the regular season Sept. 7 at Richmond -- by jumping from 31st to 27th in the standings.
"I told Matt, 'Why didn't you let Denny win?' " joked JGR team president J.D. Gibbs. "Matt is like, 'I ain't going to let him win.' I think he's got pretty good (Chase) chances, but it's hard to predict that stuff."
Postseason hopes notwithstanding, the boost Hamlin received by not being subjected to watching his No. 11 Toyota circle the track with someone else at the wheel was immeasurable. The second-place finish, after a demanding 500 miles at NASCAR's oldest superspeedway, was just icing.
"I mean, it feels good to just be competitive again," Hamlin said. "Watching the races from the sidelines for really five weeks, it's tough. You know you can change things. You can do things to change your outcome, but you're not in the race car.
"My back held up good. I'm more sore, shoulders, neck, things like that. I've got to get back in racing shape. It will take time to get back to where I need to be."
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-- Denny Hamlin