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Hamlin braces for physical, mental battle at Darlington

May 11, 2013, 5:43 PM EDT

Bojangles' Southern 500 - Practice Getty Images

Denny Hamlin believes that he can withstand the physical pain of tonight’s Sprint Cup event at Darlington Raceway, which will be his first full-distance race since suffering a fractured vertebrae in a last-lap crash back in March at Auto Club Speedway.

But the mental challenge will still be a daunting one for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who started last weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway before giving way early to relief driver Brian Vickers.

“I’ll be able to make it physically, but it’s a matter of whether I can keep my mind engaged through whatever maybe physical pains I have towards the end to keep our finishes good and, obviously, have a chance to win,” said Hamlin, who starts sixth for tonight’s Bojangles’ Southern 500.

With a narrow racing groove that runs primarily up against the wall and a surface that’s regaining its traditional abrasiveness following a 2005 repaving, the 1.366-mile oval in the South Carolina sand hills is taxing enough for drivers that are fully healthy, let alone one that’s still working his way back to form.

But Hamlin is intent on gutting out the entire 500 miles tonight, and truly beginning his long-shot quest to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The Virginia native is currently 31st in the standings and will need to not only break into the Top 20 but win at least one race to give himself a chance at making the Chase as a wild card.

Hamlin has never missed the Chase in his seven-year Cup career.

“We didn’t get that much [points] last week, so it’s going to be all on my shoulders to make the run towards the Chase,” he said. “We fell back an additional three spots last week in the points, so 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 put ourselves in position and win a race here and there — more than likely if we win a couple of races — then we’re going to be Top 20 in points, I would think.”

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