For the first time in eight weeks, Denny Hamlin is entering a NASCAR weekend with the intention of running a full race.
After sustaining an L1 compression fracture March 24 at Auto Club Speedway, which caused him to sit out four races and part of another, Hamlin has "no doubt" he will be able to run the entire distance in Saturday's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
With its narrow racing surface along with the physical and mental demands it puts on drivers, Darlington isn't an ideal place for one to make a return from a back injury. But Hamlin is so confident that he can complete a 500-mile race on NASCAR's toughest track that he will not have a relief driver on standby.
"I stayed in the car for about an hour and a half straight with no issues during practice," Hamlin said Friday. "Nothing was uncomfortable, nothing hurt or nothing was sore, so I'm pretty comfortable I can make it the three or three and a half hours that it's going to take to run the race."
Not yet 100 percent, Hamlin is returning full-time with the intention of racing his way into the Chase for what would be an eighth consecutive season.
However, he acknowledges that the path to the Chase includes climbing out of what in his words is a "huge, huge hole."
Currently ranked 31st overall, Hamlin's only route to qualifying for the Chase is by securing one of two wildcard slots available to the two drivers with the most victories. The caveat is that to be eligible for a wildcard he has to finish inside the top 20 in points, which he remains confident will happen if he performs anywhere close to the level he as for the last few years.
Hamlin's confidence stems from the fact he won five races a year ago -- all but one came during the regular season -- and the team he drives for, Joe Gibbs Racing, has been dominant this year, having won four of 10 races.
There are also a host of tracks -- Pocono, Michigan, New Hampshire, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond -- upcoming where Hamlin typically excels, with 16 of his 22 career wins having come on those six tracks.
As he prepares for his return, Hamlin's mindset isn't to worry about points and where he is in the standings. His thinking is if he can win twice and avoid a rash of poor finishes, he should be high enough in the standings to snag a wildcard berth.
"I love the challenge. ... I think we're about two races out of 20th now. We could do it over a 16-race span. It's just 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."