NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
       === The Inside Line: Hamlin more confident now of making Chase ===
 By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
 Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Denny Hamlin was sore and tired after this
 past Saturday night's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, but his second-place
 finish there helped boost his confidence of making this year's Chase.
 Hamlin ran his first full race since suffering a compression fracture in his
 lower back during a last-lap accident in the March 24 event at Auto Club
 Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had to sit out four
 races -- Martinsville, Texas, Kansas and Richmond.
 He returned to competition earlier this month at Talladega, where he completed
 25 laps before handing the car over to relief driver Brian Vickers, who
 finished the race in 34th. Vickers was caught up in the first of two big wrecks
 during that event.
 Heading into Darlington, Hamlin sat 31st in the point standings, but his
 runner-up finish there elevated him to 27th. His teammate, Matt Kenseth,
 won the 500-mile race after passing Kyle Busch, a JGR driver, for the lead
 with 13 laps remaining.
 Kenseth and Hamlin gave JGR a 1-2 finish at Darlington. Busch dominated the
 race by leading 265 of 367 laps but cut a tire with less than 20 laps to go,
 which led to a disappointing sixth-place run.
 "It feels good to just be competitive again," Hamlin said. "I definitely
 didn't feel any back pain. It was just more stamina that I had issues with."
 With 15 races to go in the regular season, Hamlin is 61 points behind the
 20th-place driver (Jeff Burton) and 118 points away from the 10th position
 (Kevin Harvick). The top 10 in points after the Sept. 7 race at Richmond will
 qualify for the Chase. The two wild card positions will go to those drivers
 between 11th-20th in points that have the most wins.
 Hamlin is optimistic he can win some races and be in the top 20 in points
 following Richmond, which is the home track for the Chesterfield, Va., native.
 "I love the challenge," he said. "Really for me, the less realistic it is, the
 bigger challenge that it is for me, so I actually don't mind."
 Hamlin has qualified for the playoffs in NASCAR's premier series each year
 since his rookie season in 2006. He held the 10th spot in points after
 "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," Hamlin noted. "You've got to have things go your way. That's the
 bottom line to it. A lot of this sport is based on luck, and we're going to
 need some."
 If Hamlin can qualify, JGR likely would have all three of its full-time
 drivers in the Chase. Kenseth is presently third in the standings (59 points
 behind leader Jimmie Johnson), but his series-leading three wins are ample for
 at least a wild card, should he need it. Busch is eighth in points (98 behind)
 but has two victories to his credit.
 "I told Matt, 'Why didn't you let Denny win'?" JGR team president J.D. Gibbs
 jokingly said during Kenseth's post-race press conference at Darlington. "Matt
 is like, 'I ain't going to let him win.' I think he's got pretty good chances,
 but it's hard to predict that stuff."
 The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, a non-points event, is scheduled for Saturday
 night at Charlotte. Then the series will run its longest race of the season
 there - the Coca-Cola 600 - on May 26.
 While Hamlin continues to fully recover from his injury, he has no plans to
 take it easy during the all-star race, which is 135 miles in length. He has
 eligibility for this event based on his five wins last season.
 "I want to win, so I'm going to do everything I can and be as aggressive as I
 would any other race," he said. "Usually in the all-star race, the closer up
 front you are, the less out of trouble you are. So I'm going to try to do
 everything I can to be up front, and if not, it will just be a good test
 session weekend."
 Hamlin's most recent win came last September at New Hampshire (15 races ago).
 05/13 16:27:48 ET