MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Denny Hamlin thinks that he might have come back too soon from an injury – and he's glad he did.
The driver for Joe Gibbs Racing missed only four races after sustaining a compression fracture of a vertebra in his lower back in a last-lap accident at California on March 24.
The perennial series championship contender rushed back hoping to defy the odds, qualify for the NASCAR's 10-race playoffs and make a run at the championship that has eluded him in his career.
Instead, after a hope-fueling return that included second- and fourth-place finishes in his second and third starts, Hamlin's luck essentially ran out. He didn't make the Chase, and has struggled mightily.
Might it have been better to give up on the year when he got hurt and focus on his health?
"Maybe," he said Friday at Martinsville Speedway, where Hamlin has won four times in his career, and where he led the way as 18 drivers broke Johnson's track qualifying record. Hamlin's fast lap came at 99.595 mph.
"It definitely wouldn't have taken the mental toll that this year, post coming back, has, but the struggles that we're having now will define us later down the road," Hamlin continued. "If we would have just gotten hurt, sat out, got healthy and came back next season, I'm not sure I would have been as mentally tough as I am now."
The Virginia driver will start Sunday's race 24th in the points, and with just one top-10 finish in his last 18 races. It's not the kind of success he's accustomed to, and it's been good to experience, he said, because it has forced him, through steady exposure, to come to accept that he's not always going to be great.
It's a lesson he realizes now he needed to learn.
"That was kind of the fault I had in 2010 in the championship and even previous years," he said, speaking of the season he came the closest to the title, finishing second. "One bad race and I would just kind of freak out and it would linger on and on and one with me for weeks. Now, not that I'm immune to bad finishes, but you just try to find the little positive now versus thinking about the negatives."
Hamlin hopes to find a whole bunch more positives in the last four races.
He's won at least one race in every season since he became a full-time driver in 2006, but hasn't visited Victory Lane yet this year. And then he'll take the time in the offseason to assess his health options. There are three procedures that could help his back heal, and he's not sure what he'll do.
He insists his back is feeling ever better, but looks forward to simply having a chance to rest.
"I'm so tight in my lower back area, that obviously I have to tense myself up all the time, so I'm always worn out when races are over with," he said. "I'm always exhausted, mentally exhausted, having to think about how I can do my best job but not let the pain bother me inside the car.
I'm always having to kind of move around to make sure I don't sit in one spot too long. All that is a pain, but it's what I've got to deal with, at least until I've got two months to really recover," he said.
"With our schedule, we just don't have time. I've been testing the last three weeks. I haven't had more than four days to be out of a car and just let myself rest. I'll get that here in a few weeks."
But first, there's more racing to do, and while Hamlin's team has been focusing on research and development to come back strong next season, there's that winning streak that he'd like to preserve.
"If we could get a win this weekend, by no means will it fix or make us feel good about our year, but it will definitely give us something to smile about in the offseason," he said.
And for those that say he's almost forgotten like an also-ran this year?
He likes being counted out, too, especially with the 0.526-mile oval awaiting Sunday.
"I think for the competition or anyone from the outside to think that (Hamlin) is going to be the favorite going into a track where we struggled to run top-10 lately would be farfetched," he said. "However, I'm pretty sure and pretty confident that we're going to be a pretty large force on Sunday."