Driver feels '80 percent' better; eyes return at Richmond race
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- Denny Hamlin walked into the room looking like his usual self, wearing a black polo adorned with sponsor logos and a pair of blue jeans. When he sat down, though, he did so gingerly, bracing himself on the arm of the chair as he lowered himself into the seat. And then there was the brace wrapped around his midsection, the bulk of which was visible beneath his shirt.
At times during a conversation Wednesday with reporters he had to catch his breath, the result of the pressure of the brace and medication he’s taking for a fractured lumbar vertebra suffered March 24 in a crash at Auto Club Speedway. But those were the only outward signs of the injury, which doctors have said could keep Hamlin out of his No. 11 car for an estimated five more weeks.
No wonder the driver is hoping for an accelerated recovery timetable. “My goal, if somehow magically my body is strong and tough, personally I’d like to come back at Richmond,” he said, referring to the April 27 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at his hometown race track.
"They thought that six weeks was an aggressive comeback. But I think I’m going to be ready to go before that."
-- Denny Hamlin
Hamlin won’t be allowed back in the race car until he’s cleared by a team of physicians that includes Indianapolis orthopedist Dr. Terry Trammell and Charlotte-area neurologist and spinal specialist Dr. Jerry Petty. His targeted return date is May 11 at Darlington Raceway, so a Richmond comeback would be two weeks ahead of schedule.
“I haven’t even discussed it with them, because I don’t want to freak out the doctors, trying to rush them, because I know they’ve got my best interests in mind,” Hamlin said at the Joe Gibbs Racing shop. “But ultimately, every doctor I’ve spoken to has left it as a possibility that you could heal quicker than six weeks. It’s possible. It’s absolutely possible. They thought that six weeks was an aggressive comeback. But I think I’m going to be ready to go before that.”
The fact that Hamlin is already walking around without a great deal of discomfort is impressive given where he was two weeks ago, after final-lap contact with Joey Logano on the 2-mile track sent him slamming into an inside wall not protected with the SAFER barrier. Hamlin was strapped to a backboard and airlifted to Southern California’s Loma Linda University Medical Center, where he was in “so much pain,” he said. “I thought it was never-ending pain and it would never go away. I thought that maybe I’m done forever.”
When he heard the eventual diagnosis -- a compression fracture of his L1 vertebra -- he knew he’d be out of the car for while, even before Petty confirmed it at an office visit days later. For a driver with championship aspirations, it was a devastating moment, though one that also left Hamlin grateful the injury wasn’t worse.
“I’m thankful that my spine fractured where it did, and not up here,” he said, motioning to his neck area. “That could obviously be very bad. The bone of my spine, if it wouldn’t have sliced right though it, if it would have shifted and hit my spinal cord, you’ve got paralysis. And that’s real.”
Hamlin doesn’t remember much about the impact -- he said he closed his eyes when he hit, and believes his injury occurred not when he struck the wall, but in a vicious recoil that lifted all four of the vehicle’s tires off the ground. Drivers pull down on their belts as a race goes on because they shrink down in the seat, and Hamlin said he can’t remember tightening his belts near the end of the race. Even so, he wondered if his injuries would have occurred had the wall been protected with the SAFER barrier.
“You really don’t appreciate the SAFER barriers as much until you don’t hit one,” he said. “I remember thinking as I was heading toward it -- I’m going to hit it. It’s not going to be life-changing or anything, because I didn’t think I was going that fast. But I didn’t recognize that it was a non-SAFER barrier (wall) until watching it on TV, and then you realize, wow, now I know why it hurt so bad. So yeah, it’s definitely a must at every race track. … It would have probably changed my outcome had it been a SAFER barrier there.”
NASCAR consultants are expected to review the wall in the aftermath of the accident and potentially recommend changes. In the meantime, Hamlin is on medications that he said at times leave him a little woozy, and wearing the brace to ensure his spine stays aligned when he twists and turns going about daily activities. He’s going to rehabilitation three times a week, taking walks through the park and waiting on his next scan -- scheduled in a few weeks’ time -- which may give doctors an idea of how quickly he’s healing and the driver a firmer idea of when he might be able to return.
Physically, Hamlin said he feels “80 percent better” now than in the days immediately after the accident. “I feel like I can win Martinsville right now,” he added, referring to this weekend’s event, the first one he’ll miss because of the injury. He said he’ll likely wear a different kind of brace more conducive to driving when he does return to the vehicle. But he can’t get in the car now because of the danger of his back withstanding another hit.
“The way I understand it is, the reason you can’t get in is, if you take another hit, your spine is already unstable because it’s fractured,” he said. “So if for some reason you take a hit and pieces start flying, then it gets in your spinal cord and you’ve got a big, big problem. That’s the reason ultimately why. I’m going to feel fine these next five weeks or four weeks. But I guess you have to look at the bigger picture. It’s tough for me to look at that, but we have to make sure I’m able to sustain another hit.”
Hamlin said he’ll likely attend Sunday’s event at Martinsville and watch from the pit box as Mark Martin wheels his No. 11 car. After that, Joe Gibbs Racing NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Brian Vickers will pilot the vehicle until Hamlin returns. The hope now is Richmond, given that the track also hosts Hamlin’s annual Short Track Showdown charity race.
“If you ask him if he could get in a car tomorrow with just a little bit of pain relief, then he’d get there and suffer through the pain and get in it,” crew chief Darian Grubb said. “But it’s all going to be the doctors’ orders. Of course Richmond is going to be where he wants to get back in …. Especially with his charity event going on at Richmond, he wants to be there at full strength and be a big part of that, too. That’s something he works all year for.”
Everyone involved understands that target is an ambitious one. And Hamlin -- who also has a hereditary heart murmur, doctors discovered after the accident -- seems content to remain patient, despite his hopes of a hometown comeback. Should he return at Darlington, he’d likely need to average top-10s the rest of the way to have a chance of extending his perfect record of qualifying for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. But any expectations of getting back into the championship hunt are on hold until his return.
“I think it all depends on when I come back,” Hamlin said. “If it’s within the time that we hope, sure there is mathematics that make it possible. It’s not going to be easy. I’d like to cross that bridge when I get there as far as that’s concerned. I don’t want the chance at a championship to decide when I get back in the car. I want to do it when it’s most safe. I want to do it when NASCAR, doctors, everyone is comfortable with me getting back in the car. Not just, OK, if we don’t get in this week, your season is done, and then you rush into something you shouldn’t. But I can be certain to tell you that if it is at all possible when I get back in, I will be on a mission to make it.”
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