DARLINGTON — Denny Hamlin got into his No. 11 Toyota on Saturday night knowing there was no safety net for him at the Southern 500.
Six weeks had passed since Hamlin sustained a compression fracture to a vertebrae in his lower back. He attempted a comeback last week at Talladega, but turned his car over to relief driver Brian Vickers early on.
That Hamlin found a way to nudge himself into second place on Saturday was every bit the impressive feat it seems to be.
“I’m tired,” Hamlin said moments after a stiff exit from his car. “I’m just worn out. It’s a tough, grueling race, but there’s nothing to hang our heads about.”
Missing so much time — roughly half the season to this point — put Hamlin’s team way off the pace in the Sprint Cup standings, so it will take many nights like Saturday to make any sort of play for the Chase.
“It feels good to just be competitive again. Watching races from the sidelines for five weeks or so is tough,” Hamlin said. “My back held up good. I’m sore in my neck and shoulders. I need to get back in racing shape, which will take time.”
Hamlin equated Saturday to the first day of the Cup season. But unlike the season’s start — when larger, relatively drama-free tracks like Daytona and Phoenix are on the slate — starting all over at Darlington is daunting.
“Driving 500 miles at Darlington is tougher than running 600 miles (at Charlotte) like we will do in a couple of weeks,” Hamlin said.
“It just requires so much mental focus, and by starting over at Darlington for 500 miles, there’s muscles that have gotten weak.”
Hamlin made his comments while sitting next to third-place finisher Jeff Gordon, who chuckled at Hamlin’s talk of back pain.
“Wait until you’re 41,” Gordon told the 32-year-old.
Replied Hamlin, “I’ve got a back of a 60-year-old.”