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Denny Hamlin hoping for early recovery

Photo: Fred Vuich/SI

Denny Hamlin is targeting the April 27 race at Richmond for his return from a back injury.

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. (AP) -- If it was up to him, Denny Hamlin's fractured vertebra in his lower back would not cause him to miss any races.

"I can get in my car right now and go; I feel like I can get in my car right now and win Martinsville,'' Hamlin said Wednesday.

But he can't race this weekend at Martinsville. He'll be watching from pit road as Mark Martin drives his car, and that might be the most painful part of the injury that has sidelined Hamlin for the first time in his career.

"I think I'm over the physical part of this, now I just have to get over the mental part of it,'' he said. "I'm going to feel fine the next four to five weeks. You have to look at the bigger picture. It's tough for me to swallow that now. I have to make sure I'm able to sustain another hit.''

Hamlin was injured in a crash on the last lap of the March 24 race at California while racing with Joey Logano for the win. Doctors have told him he should expect to miss at least five races, but Hamlin is personally targeting the April 27 race at home track Richmond for his return.

Nobody has told him he can race at Richmond, where he hosts his annual charity race, but nobody has told him it's impossible.

Same thing for his championship chances his season.

His Joe Gibbs Racing team was devastated after the accident, certain the title hopes for the No. 11 Toyota were finished. But when they did the math it became clear that Hamlin could miss five races and technically still find a way to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

So Hamlin is ruling nothing out right now about a comeback.

"It's not going to be easy,'' he said. "I'd like to cross that bridge when I get there. 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.' "

Wearing a brace under his shirt, Hamlin struggled at times to breathe while speaking to a small group of reporters at Joe Gibbs Racing in his first extended interview since the accident. His girlfriend, Jordan, stopped by with their two month old daughter, Taylor James, and his mother, Mary Lou. Turns out he has a heart murmur; doctors discovered it after the accident and believe it's hereditary.

Hamlin touched on how the lone upside in his injury is the time he now has to spend with his new baby. But fatherhood has put this incident into perspective and forced Hamlin to consider this injury could have been much, much worse.

"I'm thankful that my spine fractured where it did ... if it would have shifted and hit my spinal cord then you have paralysis and that's real,'' he said. "I got really upset in the hospital in California when they told me what it was. I was in so much pain, I thought it was never-ending pain that was never going away. I felt that maybe I was done forever.''

There are parts of him that are at peace with hits situation, but he's not at piece with Logano and it's not clear if things ever will be right between the two former teammates again. Hamlin made it clear he does not blame Logano for his injury but very much holds Logano responsible for the incident.

"The injury was circumstantial. A wreck on a two-mile speedway, you risk getting hurt,'' Hamlin said. "That frustrates me the most. Listening to him say, `I'm sure Denny's fine, these cars are safe.' That really gets to me because he's taking for granted no matter how hard you wreck, you're going to be fine.

"That's why people don't wreck each other intentionally on big racetracks. This is what can happen. He was being very careless and not caring about any repercussions and taking for granted how safe the cars have been over the years.''

And Hamlin is adamant the accident was intentional.

"How is it not intentional? It's not like he got loose because I took air off him,'' 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. He didn't get loose with the back. He drove into us with the front. That's a guy seeing I was going to get the better of him that week. He wasn't going to let that happen. He hit the gas until he hit something.''

Hamlin was composed the entire time he spoke to reporters Wednesday, but uncharacteristically grew emotional doing a later taped segment for ESPN. He was asked to watch an interview Logano had done with the network about the incident and Hamlin's injury, and Hamlin was clearly agitated during the viewing.

He seemed near tears when asked for his response to Logano's comments.

"He's not the one doing rehab. He's not the one sitting home,'' Hamlin said. "He gets to go to the track.''

Hamlin and Logano have been feuding since the closing laps of the season-opening Daytona 500, when Hamlin accused Logano of clogging up traffic. The two then tangled at Bristol, with Hamlin dumping Logano and Logano angrily confronting him after the race.

But Hamlin said Logano exacted his payback in that race - and in doing so cost his teammate Brad Keselowski the win at Bristol - so there was no need for Logano to still be angry at him at Fontana. Still, he said Logano seems intent on not being pushed around on the track and it's costing him dearly in results.

"He had the fastest car for two weeks in a row and instead of winning the races he got into incidents with drivers because he's just not patient enough,'' Hamlin said. "You have to win with the cars you've got capable of winning and I just think that he hasn't driven up in the top-five that often in his career, and he did for two weeks in a row and he got in incidents both times. Maybe it's a different culture up there that he's not used to or what, but it's not just me.

"I watched California, I watched him cut off numerous guys throughout that race. This has all been about Joey standing up for himself. It's not that. It's the drivers that he's cutting off standing up for themselves. You've got to either change your driving style or continue to get in the incidents week after week.''

Hamlin doesn't mind that NASCAR declined to penalize Logano or Tony Stewart, who confronted Logano on pit road after California for blocking him on the final restart. He said the closing laps of the race were similar to the 1979 Daytona 500, and the drivers will mete out their own justice on the track.

"That all comes back around. These guys can make your life hell. The repercussions come. It was what our sport was raised on and got us to the point we're at right now,'' Hamlin said. "I don't question anything Tony says. He is a man of his word usually. Tony is one of the guys that everyone knows you want to stay on his good side.''

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