Denny Hamlin: Early return possible

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Injured Denny Hamlin told ESPN.com on Saturday there is a 50-50 chance he'll return to his Sprint Cup car next weekend at Richmond International Raceway.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver said it's almost 100 percent he will at least start the May 5 race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Hamlin was expected to miss six weeks after suffering a compression fracture in his lower back on the last lap of the March 24 race at Auto Club Speedway in California. That would have put his scheduled return at the May 11 race at Darlington.

But Hamlin said if the follow-up scan of the fracture that will take place either late Tuesday or early Wednesday shows bone growth he will be in the car at his home track in Richmond if doctors give him clearance.

"If everything works out, and if the scan looks the way I feel we're going to be in good shape for Richmond,'' the Chesterfield, Va., native said after the final practice for Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway. "I feel there's been growth there. I feel I've gotten stronger. Everything is a lot better.

"Last week, I would have said probably not. But this week I feel a lot better.''

Hamlin said there won't be another scan for two weeks after this week's. Even if he is not given clearance for Richmond, the plan is to start Talladega to collect driver points and give way to a backup driver after the first caution.

Hamlin said there is no consideration for starting and then putting a backup driver in at Richmond because he would lose at least two laps making the exchange at the three-quarter mile track.

"Talladega would be the one you could get away with it,'' he said of the 2.66-mile track. "Richmond, it would put the team in a huge hole the rest of the day.

"Ultimately, it's just a risk thing. Ultimately, I can drive the car as fast as anyone out there by myself. It's taking hits where obviously the risk falls in. They feel confident I can ride around in the back at Talladega and not get in any trouble until the first caution comes out.''

Hamlin's car finished 10th at Martinsville with Martin Martin behind the wheel and eighth last week at Texas with Brian Vickers, keeping the car in contention for an owner's title. Vickers qualified 16th for Sunday's race.

"It's a little easier watching somebody else drive the car,'' Hamlin said. "It's not easy watching your name fall down the standings more and more and more.''

Hamlin said he's been off pain medicine for a week and a half, so that won't be an issue with getting medical clearance. He is confident after looking at the crash data from Auto Club Speedway that it would be tough to duplicate what led to his injury.

"It had more to do with the incline I went through before I hit the wall,'' Hamlin noted of the way the concrete sent his car at an upward angle. "Instead of hitting the wall head on and me coming out of the seat like you would think, as the car started to hit that incline with that asphalt, it put me in a down compression and then I hit.

"That's why I had a compression versus getting over extended. Over extended is not what broke my spine. I just got compressed.''

Hamlin's biggest concern is not falling too far behind in the point race to give himself a chance to make the Chase. He was 10th in points when sidelined and is 25th heading into Sunday's race.
The top 10 in points make the Chase, with two wild cards chosen for drivers 11-20 based on wins. There currently isn't a driver with a win outside the top 10, and Hamlin is only 17 points outside the top 20 even though he'll lose more ground by sitting on Sunday.

As much as he likes Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin said it was huge that his fellow Toyota driver didn't win a race he dominated at Texas last week because Truex is 19th in points.

"If Truex gets that win, that puts a tough spot on us trying to get one of those wild card spots,'' Hamlin said. "As bad as it sounds, we've got to root against Marcus [Ambrose] at the road course and things like that unless those guys get in the top 10.

"But if we win, it will take care of itself. I believe we can get in the top 20.''

Returning at Richmond or Talladega would be a boost because it would give Hamlin 18 or 17 races to make up lost ground as opposed to 16 if he returned at Darlington.

"Either way, our preliminary plan to at least be in the car at the start of Talladega just to get some points to lay somewhat of a foundation for a comeback,'' Hamlin said.