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To Hamlin, back isn’t only thing that hurts

August 17, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

JGR driver says pain is unrelated to poor performance

Related: Sunday's lineup | Full coverage from Michigan

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Denny Hamlin feels it most when he enters the corner at a sweeping, high-speed track like Michigan International Speedway. That’s when the lateral forces exerted on his car cause the vehicle to twist slightly, and the pain in his back to sharpen into a persistent ache.

There’s something else that hurts, too -- his pride whenever he looks at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings, and sees himself buried in points. But according to the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who missed four full races earlier this season because of a fractured vertebra suffered in an accident, those two sources of discomfort are not related.

“I can tell you, I’m still dealing with back pain. It’s something that I’ve dealt with for a really long time. As long as I’ve dealt with it, you’d think I’d be used to it, but I’m not. It’s something that’s agonizing. When the cars go in the corner and it twists a little bit, it aches. It bothers me a lot,” Hamlin said at Michigan. “But there’s nothing that I can do right now. … It definitely is not comfortable in the car at this point. I haven’t been comfortable in a long time. Really, I was fighting it at the beginning of the year before the accident, and the accident just made everything worse. I’m looking forward to the offseason, trust me. But we’re not running badly because of my back.”

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Hamlin fractured a lumbar vertebra in a final-lap crash with Joey Logano at Fontana, Calif., on March 24 -- an injury that required him to miss four full races and exit the Sprint Cup event at Talladega after 23 laps. But the Virginia native had been dealing with back issues well before that incident, as evidenced by a July weekend at Daytona last season where spasms led him to skip two Sprint Cup practices and a scheduled NASCAR Nationwide Series start.

Compounding it all are the results on the race track. After returning from his injury earlier this year, Hamlin was optimistic about keeping alive his streak of qualifying for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup every season in which he was eligible. But after two top-five finishes to begin his comeback, the No. 11 team has dropped off the playoff radar, managing only a single top-10 result in 10 races since. Hamlin came to Michigan a distant 25th in points, without a victory on the season, and all but conceding his playoff hopes were done.

That kind of uncharacteristic performance has led many to connect Hamlin’s results with his back pain, two things the driver contends are unrelated. When Hamlin lists the reasons for the No. 11 team’s struggles, he touches on a number of topics -- a change in setup strategy that left the No. 11 team behind others in the garage area, his cars not being exactly where they need to be, Toyota Racing Development tinkering with engine packages to first reduce and then gradually restore horsepower in an effort to improve reliability. He never mentions his back.

“I used to wonder how anyone in the world could run 15th. I never understood how you run 15th. And here lately, we’ve been struggling just to get there. We just have lost ourselves at some point,” Hamlin said. Others in the garage moving toward what he calls “back down” setups forced him to alter his driving style and “threw us for a complete loop,” he added. “It threw all of our setups out of the window.”

Hamlin said he and crew chief Darian Grubb sat down earlier this week to discuss a change of approach for Michigan, where Hamlin finished 30th in June. “Arguably my worst race ever in the Cup Series,” he called it. The goal is to try and build some momentum toward some of Hamlin’s better tracks later in the summer, and perhaps take some steps back toward contention even though a Chase berth is almost certainly out of reach. Qualifying eighth for Sunday’s event at Michigan offered a hopeful start.

“It’s been tough,” said Hamlin, a 22-time race winner on NASCAR’s top series. “We’ve just not run good at all. We’ve been trying to find ourselves, so to say, and struggling to find what it takes to run fast. We’ve had some issues. We’ve had motor things that haven’t been up to par. … And some car stuff, some handling issues that me and Darian have had to sit down in the office and try to figure out over these last few weeks. We think this weekend is going to be a good start for that.”

There’s also another matter that will eventually require attention -- Hamlin’s back. The driver said he’ll have something done in the offseason, though right now he’s not sure exactly what. Sometime in early fall, Hamlin said he’ll begin sitting down with doctors and discussing options, one of which is surgery and an ensuing recovery period of six to 12 weeks. Whatever path he chooses, he wants to be ready in time for the 2014 season.

“I’ll do something,” Hamlin said. “I’ve done rehab, and I do rehab all the time, and it just doesn’t get better like it should. I’m going to do whatever it takes. The doctors don’t want to operate, that’s for sure. They are leaning toward not wanting to do it. But if it affects what’s going on and how you feel in the car, we have to do something.”

Meanwhile, he deals with those who believe he should step out of the car now to have something done -- a subject that led to a brief war or words with former driver and current television analyst Kyle Petty -- or that he’s hurting his race team by staying in the seat. Hamlin is more focused on trying to return his team to contention, and keeping alive his streak of winning at least once in each of his full-time seasons at NASCAR’s top level.

“I’m going to gut it out as long as I can for this race team. As long as they’ll have me, really,” he said. “For a driver to willingly get out of his race-winning team (and) car is crazy by any driver’s standards. I’m just going to do everything I can to be competitive. There’s no reason why I can’t. I want to keep my streak alive of winning every year. There’s things I’ve got to look forward for the rest of this year. There are a lot of positive things that we can do from here on out. We want to spoil the Chase. We want to be the guys who are stealing wins from Chase guys. It’s got to start soon.”

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