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 his situation, but it's not clear if things ever will be right with Logano, his former teammate. Hamlin made it clear he does not blame Logano for his injury, but holds him 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."