HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — Denny Hamlin’s breathing remains labored a week and a half after breaking his back, but his focus is not.
Regardless of when he returns to his No. 11 Toyota, he said he will race hard.
Hamlin, who was seated in a leather arm chair with his torso covered in a back brace, talked with the media Wednesday for the first time since his accident.
“There is mathematics that make it possible (to make the Chase), it’s not going to be easy,” said Hamlin at Joe Gibbs Racing headquarters.
“I’d like to cross that bridge when I get there, as far as that’s concerned. I don’t want the chance at a championship to decide when I get back in the car. I want to do it when it’s most safe.
“I want to do it when everyone — doctors, me, etc., — are comfortable with me getting back in the car, not just because ‘if we don’t get in this week then our season is done.’ ”
Hamlin suffered a compression fracture of his L1 vertebra, the upper-most vertebra in the lumbar spine of his lower back, during a violent last-lap wreck in the March 24 Sprint Cup Series race in Fontana, Calif.
After contact with driver Joey Logano’s car as the two raced for the win, Hamlin’s hit a wall not covered by energy-absorbing SAFER barriers, which Hamlin says he thinks played a role in the severity of his injury.
He did not require surgery, but doctors said he would need to miss a minimum of six weeks, a span that includes five races. Hamlin said he will have a follow-up scan to examine his progress within two to three weeks.
“I can be certain to tell you that if it is at all possible to make the Chase when I get back in the car, I will be on a mission to make it,” he said.
Hamlin said that during his post-accident evaluation doctors also discovered he had a mild heart murmur, but he believes it is hereditary.
“My mom has one,” he said. “It’s not a huge deal and does not affect anything, just very irregular heartbeat. They did a bunch of tests with that.”
Hamlin, 32, is confident he would have had a much better outcome from the wreck had the wall he hit been covered with SAFER barriers.
“You really don’t appreciate the SAFER barriers as much until you don’t hit one,” he said. “I think I didn’t recognize that it was a non-SAFER barrier until watching it on TV.
“Then you realize, ‘Wow, now I know why it hurt so bad.’ It’s definitely a must at every race track because I think NASCAR has the data to know how much it softens a particular blow.
Hamlin said he also hopes his experience serves as a reminder that regardless of the safety advances made in NASCAR, any accident poses a risk to a driver.
“We’ve been spoiled in the sense of thinking we’re bulletproof, and I think that’s why you’re seeing guys retaliating and things like this because you haven’t seen any repercussions for it,” Hamlin said.