Hamlin Set for Darlington Challenge

Denny Hamlin

“It will be a challenge because this is one of the toughest, physically challenging races that we have, not only by distance but the amount of mental focus that you have to have during this race is tough because you’re running right next to the wall and the margin for error is zero," (Photo: Getty Images)

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DARLINGTON, S.C. - The question isn’t if Denny Hamlin can physically make it to the end of Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500, it’s if he’ll be strong enough mentally.

“That was the one thing I was worried about the most, thinking about it (Thursday night),’’ Hamlin said Friday at Darlington Raceway. “Is my stamina going to be enough to make it (to the end)? It’s a matter of whether I can keep my mind engaged and get through any physical pains I have at toward the end to keep our finish good.’’

Saturday’s race will be the first time Hamlin attempts to run the full distance since suffering an L1 compression fracture in a last-lap crash March 24 at Auto Club Speedway. He was injured after while dueling Joey Logano for the win. Hamlin missed the next four races and got out of the car early in last week’s race at Talladega to give him more time to rest.

Darlington is not the ideal place for Hamlin at this time because of its demands, but that’s what he faces after being cleared by doctors.

“It will be a challenge because this is one of the toughest, physically challenging races that we have, not only by distance but the amount of mental focus that you have to have during this race is tough because you’re running right next to the wall and the margin for error is zero,’’ Hamlin said.

Hamlin, who has never finished worse than 13th in seven Sprint Cup starts at Darlington, said he felt good after a 90-minute practice session Friday and that gives him hope he’ll have no issues Saturday night. A practice session, though, doesn’t provide the test he’ll face with a full field of cars on the track at the same time.

“I feel like I’m sharp with everything,’’ Hamlin said. “I’m not terribly far off on the speed. We’re just picking up right where we left off. If I hold back the team, hopefully it will just be for a little while and I’ll pick it up for them a little later.’’

Hamlin also knows after missing four races, he has little margin for error if he hopes to make the Chase. He enters the race 31st in the driver standings, 76 points out of 20th. That’s key. Only drivers 11th to 20th are eligible for the two wildcard spots. Hamlin, who won this race in 2010, likely needs to win two races before the Chase field is set after Richmond in September to have a chance to race for a championship. The odds are not in his favor.

“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. We could do it over a 16-race span. You’ve got to have things go your way. A lot of this sport is based on luck and we’re going to need some.’’

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