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 finally returns behind the wheel of his No. 11 Toyota, he said he will race as hard – if not harder – than ever before.
“There is mathematics that make it possible (to make the Chase), it’s not going to be easy,” said Hamlin, in an interview with a group of reporters Wednesday at Joe Gibbs Racing headquarters.
Hamlin still had visible difficulty breathing as he sat in a leather arm chair, his torso covered in a back brace.
“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 in a violent last-lap wreck in the March 24 Sprint Cup Series race in Fontana, Calif.
After contact with driver Joey Logano as the two raced for the win, Hamlin hit a wall not covered by energy-absorbing SAFER barriers.
Hamlin did not require surgery but doctors said he would need to miss a minimum of six weeks (which covered five races). Hamlin said he will have a follow-up scan to examine his progress in 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.”
Hamlin said during his post-accident evaluation doctors also discovered he had a mild heart murmur, but he believes it is hereditary.
“My mom has one. It’s not a huge deal and does not affect anything, just very irregular heartbeat,” he said. “They did a bunch of tests with that.”
Hamlin, 32, is also 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. I think I didn’t recognize that it was a non-SAFER barrier until watching it on TV,” Hamlin said.
“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.
“It would have probably changed my outcome had it been a SAFER barrier there.”
Hamlin said he also hopes his experience serves as a reminder that regardless of the safety advances made in NASCAR, any accident poses the possibility of injury 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.
“This is a prime example of why you can’t take it to that next level, especially on the fast race tracks. I think about how close I was to actually having a major injury – I mean major, major – and it won’t change the way I drive, but it will definitely change the way I think when it comes to battling someone at the end and putting someone in the wall.
“It’s just not the right thing to do. Anything can happen, you just never know.”
Hamlin still remains convinced Logano was at fault for their last-lap wreck at Auto Club Speedway, although he doesn’t blame Logano for his injury nor think NASCAR should have penalized him.
Hamlin had spun out Logano the week before at the race at Bristol, Tenn.
“How was it not intentional?” Hamlin said. “I saw him getting closer, and I moved up the track. He was just going to keep going until he ran into us.
“Whatever happened after that, I’m sure he didn’t mean to wreck or get me hurt, but he meant to run into us, there’s no doubt.”
Hamlin is planning to spend Sunday atop his No. 11 team’s pit box with crew chief Darian Grubb as veteran Mark Martin makes his one appearance as Hamlin’s fill-in at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
It’s not something Hamlin is looking forward to.
“It will be tough, especially being there in person,” he said. “It will be particularly tough knowing that I should be on the other side of that wall.”