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Pit crew key as Hamlin claws back from injury

NASCAR.com

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CONCORD, N.C. -- Denny Hamlin did not look like someone who had just completed a 600-mile race.

He didn't look like someone who recently spent four weeks on the sidelines with a fractured vertebra in his lower back.

And he certainly didn't look like someone who tweaked his back a day earlier, an incident that necessitated three hours of rehabilitation prior to Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Yet Hamlin was all of those things. He was also the fourth-place finisher at CMS in the Sprint Cup Series' longest event of the year.

It was the second consecutive top-five run for a Joe Gibbs Racing driver that might just earn him an invitation to the Chase for the Sprint Cup after all.

"I feel good, really better than I expected," Hamlin said after his car had been pushed into the garage for post-race inspection and the last few fans had headed toward the exits at the 1.5-mile track.

Truthfully, he didn't know what to expect. A day earlier, there was concern as he was wrapping up the day's final practice session.

"I had a little issue," Hamlin, 32, said. "I kind of tweaked my back and I was really worried.

"I felt a pop, and when it popped, my back just went into spasms. I was on the phone Saturday night with all the doctors ? I'd lost all feeling in my (backside) and I couldn't feel the race car.

"But I got it back today and everything seems to be good. I feel as good as any other race I've had."

Hamlin, who finished second at Darlington in his first full race back following the back injury, qualified on the pole for the race at Charlotte. He led the first six laps, then spent the rest of the evening inside the top 10.

Back-to-back top-five finishes have enabled him to move steadily up through the standings -- 31st after starting the May 5 race at Talladega (and giving the wheel up to Brian Vickers), he's now 24th and trails 20th place Tony Stewart by 53.

The twentieth spot is key -- only those in 11th through 20th after the season's 26th race are eligible for one of the two wild-card spots available for the Chase. Get to 20th or higher, along with a win, and he can perhaps forget that early-season four-race departure.

"I think tonight we jumped (three spots)," crew chief Darian Grubb said. "We're just going to keep fighting and trying to get in the top 20. The wins would put us in the top 20 for sure. We've got to get us some wins and that marches us right up there to fight for that wild card spot.

"I think we've got a real good shot at it, especially the way everything has been going the last few weeks. We've had fast cars and Denny's focus has been really good."

Grubb said being just a bit off on the handling of the No. 11 Toyota kept Hamlin from running up front. They stayed close, though, with some fast, error-free work on pit road.

"An awesome job in the pits" Grubb said of his team's over-the-wall crew. "We gained spots every time we came in.

"As long as we can keep doing that and making the best out of everything we've got then I think we'll have a good chance to make ourselves better and make the Chase."

While it's hard to be disappointed with back-to-back top-five finishes, Hamlin said his team "isn't running as good as I had hoped."

"But it'll come," he said. "The physical aspect of it, I know that every week from here on out I'm going to continue to get better and I feel better every week.

"We need to sneak a win in there somewhere and possibly two. I feel we can get to the top 20 in points, it's just a matter of how far we can go from there."

 

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