Denny Hamlin says he's on pace for return
April 25, 2013, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
Hamlin targets Talladega but could give way to relief driver there
RICHMOND, Va. -- If medical matters were left up to Denny Hamlin, he wouldn't have missed a race all year. So far, doctors haven't left the NASCAR star to his own devices as he recovers from a back injury that threatens to derail his season.
Thursday at Richmond International Raceway -- his home track -- Hamlin described his healing process as being on pace, although the timetable for a full recovery, the possibility of midseason surgery and clearance for a full-time return to action remain in limbo.
What's less murky is his desire to return to the cockpit of his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in hopes of salvaging his slim chance at claiming his first Sprint Cup title this season.
"Honestly, I know everyone is trying to protect me from myself, but I would have raced at Martinsville weeks ago," Hamlin said. "Obviously, doctors are more well informed nowadays and I understand risks more than what they used to, but it used to be off driver feel and it's not that any more with concussions and everything else. They try to protect you from yourself, so it's tough."
Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing team officials reached the decision not to compete in Saturday night's Toyota Owners 400 after consulting with doctors Wednesday afternoon. Brian Vickers will drive the No. 11 in Hamlin's place for a third straight week.
Hamlin had hoped to return to competition Saturday night at Richmond, a track with special meaning to him for several reasons. The .75-mile oval, not far from his hometown of Chesterfield, Va., is not only the site of two of his 22 Sprint Cup wins, but is also the host to his annual Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown, which benefits his charitable foundation.
As eager as Hamlin was to drive in a Richmond homecoming, a more cautious approach prevailed.
"Obviously, my injury is very, very hard because there is no exact science to the risk," Hamlin said. "No one knows what the risk will be if I race this week or if I race two weeks from now. Bone healing is completely subjective. It takes bone healing a year most times to be 100 percent, so how do you quantify how much more risk is there this week versus two weeks down the road or three weeks down the road or two months down the road, so that's the tough part of it. Everyone is erring on the cautious side because no one ultimately wants to be responsible and have their name on the line of clearing a driver and then he goes out and gets hurt."
Hamlin has been sidelined since suffering a back injury March 24 in a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway. The wreck marked the second straight week of full-contact racing between Hamlin and former teammate Joey Logano, stoking what has become this season's most tense rivalry.
Hamlin said doctors are happy with a plan to have him start the May 5 race at Talladega Superspeedway before giving way to a relief driver in the early going. Hamlin would be credited with points in the driver standings under that scenario. The same plan was considered at Richmond, but negotiating a driver change at .75-mile Richmond would likely cost a team several laps and a realistic shot at winning. At 2.66-mile Talladega, lap times -- especially under caution -- would allow the team to switch drivers with minimal penalty.
Hamlin, who will miss his fourth consecutive race Saturday, has slipped from 10th place to 26th in the Sprint Cup Series standings over that span. To qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup through a wild-card berth, Hamlin will need to collect wins and work his way back into the top 20 in points.
Even though Hamlin is antsy to get back on track, he has kept his chances in perspective -- especially if the injury lingers and the odds grow longer.
"I think if this goes past Darlington (May 11), then I don't know what the chances of us making the Chase are even if we were to race this weekend, race next weekend or the one after -- I don't know the chances," he said. "There's a lot of good teams that you have to beat to guarantee you're going to win the races. Obviously, if it goes past Darlington our chances are crushed even harder.
"Eventually you have to have a shutdown point of not going out there and racing for nothing at a point. I think a recovery on the kind of surgery that I would like to have is about a month-and-a-half or so -- I could potentially come back maybe for the tail end of the year. I don't think anything would be season-ending, I guess you could say. Eventually you have to know the point at which you're looking at improbabilities of making the Chase and just being smart about it."
Hamlin said he is physically able to climb into a race car through the driver door window, but that the injury has had an effect on his day-to-day life. He said his ailing back prevents him from bending over to lift his 3-month-old daughter from her crib and that his everyday pain level -- on a scale of one to 10 -- is an aching seven.
"That is stuff that does affect your daily life and really other than my back I am physically able to do a lot of things outside of racing, but I can't because I'm so limited on what I can do because of back issues," Hamlin said. "I just want to get that part over with. I'm willing to take the risk to get better and take the time off to get better because I feel like mentally it will put me in a better place. Other than that, it's just everyday life and you deal with it."
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