Hamlin Begins Chase Quest

Denny Hamlin

“A lot of this sport is based on luck and we’re going to need some." (Photo: Getty Images)

DARLINGTON, S.C. - Denny Hamlin’s quest to make the Chase after missing four races this season will be like his drive in Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500.

Long, tiring and difficult.

In his first full race since he broke a vertebrae in late March, an exhausted Hamlin finished second to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.

“That was a grind," Hamlin radioed crew chief Darian Grubb.

Hamlin’s gritty performance moved him four spots to 27th with 15 races left until the Chase field is set after Richmond in September. He is 61 points out of 20th - the lowest a driver can be to remain eligible for a Wild Card spot. Hamlin gained 15 points on the 20th after Saturday’s race.

Darlington is among the most challenging tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit but Hamlin knew that it would be more difficult since he hadn’t driven a full race in more than six weeks.

“I’m sore and tired," Hamlin said afterward. “I definitely didn’t feel any back pain. It was just more stamina that I had issues with."

It will get easier. Next week’s Sprint All-Star race is the shortest race of the season, giving Hamlin another chance to build his endurance before the Coca-Cola 600 in two weeks.

J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, says the time off for Hamlin has provided a spark.

“I think when you’re not in the sport, you haven’t been driving for a while, it reignites that passion," Gibbs said. “He’s kind of back in that mode."

That was evident a day before the race when Hamlin was asked about his chances of making the Chase, considering no driver has ever made it after missing one race, let alone four.

“I love the challenge," Hamlin said. “The less realistic it is, the bigger the challenge it is for. We have a huge, huge hole that we’ve got to dig out of, but there’s nothing that wins can’t fix. That’s the bottom line. If we win a couple of races, we’re going to be top 20, I would think. You’ve got to have things go your way."

Hamlin ran well and his car improved as the race progressed, putting him in position to score his best finish of the season.

Although he didn’t get a win Saturday, he did have some luck in who won. Hamlin noted that he needs drivers securely in the top 10 to win many of the remaining races so that limits the number of drivers with wins fighting for a wildcard spot. Kenseth moved a spot to third after his win. There are no drivers between 11th and 20th - where the two Wild Card spots will come from - with a win nearly halfway to the Chase cutoff.

“A lot of this sport is based on luck,’’ Hamlin said, “and we’re going to need some."

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