2013 Toyota Owners 400: Denny Hamlin hopes to return at Darlington

John Harrelson

Denny Hamlin will start next week's race at Talladega before giving way to a relief driver. He also hopes to make his full-time return in two weeks at Darlington.

When Denny Hamlin injured his back on March 24 in a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway, the prognosis called for him to be out of the car for six weeks spanning five races.

In recent weeks, Hamlin had expressed optimism that he might be able to make an early return, perhaps as soon as this weekend for Saturday's NASCAR race at Richmond International Raceway.

Those hopes were dashed, however, when doctors Wednesday didn't clear him to compete.

But according to Hamlin, he does have permission to start the race at Talladega Superspeedway May 5 and give way to a relief driver. Then the following week at Darlington Raceway, the plan is for him to run the entire race without the aid of a backup driver.

This, of course, is contingent on Hamlin getting the OK from doctors, who will reevaluate his X-rays between Talladega and Darlington.

"(Doctors) all came to the conclusion they were happy with me starting Talladega and getting out when it's a safe time to get out," Hamlin said Thursday at Richmond. "Ultimately, we even talked about doing that here at Richmond. But it's unfair to the team for me to get out and then go three or four laps down on pit road and really know that the team's not going to finish any better than 35th -- why would they even show up for that?"

However, what if he doesn't get permission, and doctors feel Hamlin needs to be sidelined longer than initially thought?

With his chance to qualify for the Chase diminishing with each race he misses and already seriously considering having surgery in the offseason, Hamlin at that point says it would make the most sense to have the operation now.

While this would effectively end his season -- the possibility exists that he could return late in the year --- it would also allow him more time to recover.

"If I get back to it in a timely fashion in the Cup Series this year, then am still able to salvage some kind of season, then obviously it's not going to be an option until the offseason," he said. "Either way, I'd like to get it fixed and get it over with."

Hamlin did joke that with the rash of penalties to high-profile teams in the last couple of weeks, he well could be the "points leader soon." But looking at the bigger picture, he understands that unless he is cleared medically sometime in the next couple of weeks, 2013 will be essentially a lost season.

"I think if this goes past Darlington, then I don't know what the chances of us making the Chase are even if we were to race this weekend, race next weekend or the one after," Hamlin said. "There's a lot of good teams that you have to beat to guarantee you're going to win the races.

"Eventually, you have to have a shut down point of not going out there and racing for nothing at a point. ... Eventually, you have to know the point at which you're looking at improbabilities of making the Chase and just being smart about it."

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