Denny Hamlin off crutches as he hobbles into Chase opener

Updated Sep 18, 2015 at 4:24p ET

Denny Hamlin has ditched the crutch he used after tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament, and heads into the first round of NASCAR's playoffs walking on his own.

Hamlin hurt his knee last week playing basketball. He's started physical therapy and hopes he no longer needs to wear a knee brace when the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.

''It's good,'' Hamlin said. ''I'm walking a little bit more normal now, so everything's good and everything should be good in the car as well.''

The injury didn't seem to bother Hamlin last week at Richmond, where he led 39 laps and finished sixth.

Hamlin said he felt fine at Richmond, and is using his previous experience with the injury as a barometer for his current situation. Hamlin tore the ACL in his left knee in 2010 and had surgery during an off-weekend to repair the ligament.

He's holding off on surgery until after the November finale.

''I'm a week out now and I feel like it's probably a little bit better than it was the first time around,'' he said. ''I think I had two or three weeks between the start of the season and my ACL tear last time. I hadn't had to race on no ACL this quick. It hurts outside the car and it doesn't hurt really inside.''

There's zero margin for error now that the Chase is here and the 16-driver field will be whittled down to 12 in three weeks. Hamlin has insisted his injury will not prevent him from trying to advance to the championship finale for a second consecutive year.

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But he was slow in Friday's first practice at Chicagoland, where he was 30th on the speed chart and the slowest of the title contenders.

He's not that worried about Chicago, though, and has his eyes on Talladega as the biggest challenge for his knee.

''It's not the heavy braking race tracks, it's the one where you're holding the throttle wide open the longest,'' he said. ''So, Talladega will be the biggest challenge I think. But I've driven many, many laps at Talladega anyway with my left foot hung over there pushing the gas down because you're leg falls asleep there anyway holding the gas down so much.''

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