MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Denny Hamlin thinks he might have come back too soon from an injury — and he's glad he did.
The Joe Gibbs Racing star missed four races after sustaining a compression fracture of a vertebra in his lower back in a last-lap accident March 24 at California. The perennial title contender rushed back hoping to defy the odds and make NASCAR's Chase for the Championship.
But after second- and fourth-place finishes in his second and third starts, Hamlin backslid. 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 he earned the pole for Sunday's Goody's 500 and broke the track record with a lap of 99.595 mph. "(But) the struggles that we're having now will define us later down the road. 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, born in Brandon, is 24th in points with one top-10 finish in his past 18 races. But he learned he's not always going to be great.
"That was kind of the fault I had in 2010 in the championship (when he finished second) and even previous years," he said. "One bad race and I would just kind of freak out and it would linger on and on and one with me for weeks."
Sprint Cup standings leader Jimmie Johnson (99.344) qualified second for Sunday as 18 drivers broke his track qualifying record of 98.4 mph, set in June.
Hamlin also earned the pole for today's Kroger 200 truck series race at Martinsville with a lap of 96.489 mph.
Junior deal: The Army National Guard extended its sponsorship of Dale Earnhardt Jr. through 2014.
NHRA: Courtney Force, daughter of 15-time series champ John, had the best first-day qualifying run in Funny Car at the Toyota Nationals in Las Vegas. Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Adam Arana (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also led.