LOMA LINDA, CA (USATODAY.com) - Denny Hamlin walked out of Loma Linda University Medical Center on Monday night under his own power, one day after sustaining a fractured L1 vertebra in a crash at Auto Club Speedway.
Hamlin, wearing a thick back brace under a gray sweatshirt, had difficulty breathing as he spoke to two reporters, including one from USA TODAY Sports, upon his release.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver said he immediately knew "I was in big trouble" after he felt a pop in his back following a violent collision with the wall - the result of a crash triggered by contact with rival Joey Logano as the two raced for the win on the final lap.
"The position I was in, I couldn't breathe at all," Hamlin said. "I'm still having a hard time breathing. Literally, when I felt a pop, I couldn't move at all and I knew I had to get flat to my back to be able to breathe again. That's why I rushed out and just laid flat on the ground to start breathing again."
Hamlin, who was en route to fly home to North Carolina, said he had to be 100% straight - no bending at all. Otherwise, he said, "I run out of breath."
Though it's too early to tell whether Hamlin will miss any races, he seemed to understand there was a lengthy recovery in front of him. He tried to read up on the injury, he said, and nothing was very encouraging.
Hamlin said he will meet with Dr. Jerry Petty near Charlotte on Wednesday or Thursday for further evaluation.
"He's going to spend tomorrow looking at scans to distinguish what the next step is," Hamlin said. "We're kind of leaving the analyzing for him on what to do either surgery-wise or just stick with a brace and let it heal itself. Either way, obviously, both of them take a lot of time."
When he was being discharged, Hamlin tried to lift his feet into a position as if they were on the pedals and hold his hands as if he was holding a steering wheel - just to see what he could do. But even if he could drive, there could be several obstacles to a return, he noted.
First, NASCAR policy requires drivers to be off pain medications while they race. At this point, Hamlin said, that would be "really tough."
Second, Hamlin would have to figure out how to climb into the driver's seat with all of his bracing - there's no way he can race without it right now, because he "can't be twisted in any way," he said.
"I don't want to make it worse," he said. "It's not worth that."
NASCAR's top-tier series returns April 7 at Martinsville Speedway.
Hamlin said he heard from almost all of his peers - which he found to be "very encouraging" and spirit-boosting -- but not Logano. The wreck was a combination of a racing incident and a product of the drivers' rivalry, he said.
The two former teammates have been feuding since the Daytona 500.
Logano told USA TODAY Sports on Monday that he didn't wreck Hamlin intentionally and didn't realize he was injured when he told Fox: "He probably shouldn't have done what he did last week (at Bristol), so that's what he gets."
"I really went out of my way throughout the day to give the 22 room in a lot of different places," Hamlin said Monday. "He raced me really hard for really the entire event and obviously other guys as well. At the end, I think he saw I was going to win and he wasn't going to let that happen."
There was no SAFER barrier in the spot where Hamlin hit, and he hoped tracks would realize "there's just no safe place that a SAFER barrier shouldn't be."
"I'm sure when we go back there will be one there, and it's just unfortunate it takes wrecks like here and what we saw at Watkins Glen for them to kind of reconfigure these tracks where they need to be safety-wise," he said.
Hamlin said he appreciated well wishes from not only his peers, but the entire NASCAR community.
"Between 30 of your peers and thousands of race fans, it's amazing how the NASCAR community - whether they pull for you or not - they care about you and they care about your health," he said.