Denny Hamlin was sore and tired after this past Saturday night's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, but his second-place finish there helped boost his confidence of making this year's Chase.
Hamlin ran his first full race since suffering a compression fracture in his lower back during a last-lap accident in the March 24 event at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had to sit out four races -- Martinsville, Texas, Kansas and Richmond.
He returned to competition earlier this month at Talladega, where he completed 25 laps before handing the car over to relief driver Brian Vickers, who finished the race in 34th. Vickers was caught up in the first of two big wrecks during that event.
Heading into Darlington, Hamlin sat 31st in the point standings, but his runner-up finish there elevated him to 27th. His teammate, Matt Kenseth, won the 500-mile race after passing Kyle Busch, a JGR driver, for the lead with 13 laps remaining.
Kenseth and Hamlin gave JGR a 1-2 finish at Darlington. Busch dominated the race by leading 265 of 367 laps but cut a tire with less than 20 laps to go, which led to a disappointing sixth-place run.
"It feels good to just be competitive again," Hamlin said. "I definitely didn't feel any back pain. It was just more stamina that I had issues with."
With 15 races to go in the regular season, Hamlin is 61 points behind the 20th-place driver (Jeff Burton) and 118 points away from the 10th position (Kevin Harvick). The top 10 in points after the Sept. 7 race at Richmond will qualify for the Chase. The two wild card positions will go to those drivers between 11th-20th in points that have the most wins.
Hamlin is optimistic he can win some races and be in the top 20 in points following Richmond, which is the home track for the Chesterfield, Va., native.
"I love the challenge," he said. "Really for me, the less realistic it is, the bigger challenge that it is for me, so I actually don't mind."
Hamlin has qualified for the playoffs in NASCAR's premier series each year since his rookie season in 2006. He held the 10th spot in points after Fontana.
"If we put ourselves in position and win a race here and there, more than likely if we win a couple of races, then we're going to be top 20 in points I would think," Hamlin noted. "You've got to have things go your way. That's the bottom line to it. A lot of this sport is based on luck, and we're going to need some."
If Hamlin can qualify, JGR likely would have all three of its full-time drivers in the Chase. Kenseth is presently third in the standings (59 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson), but his series-leading three wins are ample for at least a wild card, should he need it. Busch is eighth in points (98 behind) but has two victories to his credit.
"I told Matt, 'Why didn't you let Denny win'?" JGR team president J.D. Gibbs jokingly said during Kenseth's post-race press conference at Darlington. "Matt is like, 'I ain't going to let him win.' I think he's got pretty good chances, but it's hard to predict that stuff."
The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, a non-points event, is scheduled for Saturday night at Charlotte. Then the series will run its longest race of the season there - the Coca-Cola 600 - on May 26.
While Hamlin continues to fully recover from his injury, he has no plans to take it easy during the all-star race, which is 135 miles in length. He has eligibility for this event based on his five wins last season.
"I want to win, so I'm going to do everything I can and be as aggressive as I would any other race," he said. "Usually in the all-star race, the closer up front you are, the less out of trouble you are. So I'm going to try to do everything I can to be up front, and if not, it will just be a good test session weekend." Hamlin's most recent win came last September at New Hampshire (15 races ago).