Back up front, Hamlin eyes strong finishing kick
October 26, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
Strong showing would help ease sting of disappointing season
"I still haven't met with the doctors to figure out the best option," Hamlin, 32, said Friday at Martinsville Speedway. "I have been feeling so much better this last month or so that I'd like to steer away from surgery if possible.
"Obviously I don't want to just cover up the pain with the treatments that I've been doing. That just numbs you a little bit. We still have an issue there that we have to address in the next month or so."
Hamlin, winner of the Coors Light Pole for Sunday's Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 Powered by Kroger, missed four races earlier this season after suffering a L1 compression fracture when he was involved in a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway.
Hamlin is competing in both NASCAR races this weekend at Martinsville -- he also won the Keystone Light Pole for the Camping World Truck Series race. The length of the races, as well as the track, he said, minimize the potential for aggravating the injury.
"We're at a short track so the hits here usually are minimal because your speed is minimal here, but I feel fine," he said. "The last couple of months or so I've gotten out of the car and my back has felt as good as it did when I started. I think the truck race here is relatively short, just 200 laps, goes by pretty quick here. Hopefully there are some things I can learn from Saturday that can translate to success on Sunday."
A four-time winner at Martinsville, Hamlin scored three top-10 finishes in his first five races back following his time out of the car, but five DNFs in the 17 races after his return erased any hopes the No. 11 team had of qualifying for this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. He enters this weekend's Cup race 24th in points.
"One thing I can tell you is that it makes you appreciate the job you have," Hamlin said of his time on the sidelines. "Obviously, the next time we get to Victory Lane it will make me appreciate that moment that much more because it's been such a struggle. Not only … the back stuff, but I mean we came back and we were pretty good and had two top-fives in a row. Since then, when you lose that edge of being at the top of your sport, it's making you fight that much harder to get back to the top.
"So for us, I think that the moment in which we become our old race team that we've been for the last seven-and-a-half years and we start winning races again, it's just going to make me appreciate it that much more.
"It will be overwhelming, I guess you could say, once we win."
But those poles haven't translated into wins -- he's winless this season with four races remaining. The Virginia native has won at least one Cup race each season since joining the circuit full time in 2006.
"Disappointing, but for a lot of different reasons," Hamlin said of his season thus far. "We actually started the year and we were competing for race wins before we had the crash at Fontana. We were in a position to win that race; Bristol we were pretty good until we had a blown tire.
"(It's) disappointing because not only did that take all of our momentum away, but then we were fighting something all the time."
Blown tires in four consecutive races, he said "kind of takes you out of the Chase picture, and the next thing you know you go into R&D mode and then you really struggle.
"So, it's been a very trying year. I guess that would probably be the key word … but you've just got to suck it up and realize that we had seven great years and there's a lot of great drivers that have missed the Chase once or twice and a lot of great drivers that have gone winless throughout a season.
"It doesn't make them any less of a driver or hurt their legacy at all because we all know how good they are and we've just got to battle through it. This has just been one of those years that's going to make you tougher and stronger in the long run."
Darian Grubb, Hamlin's crew chief since 2012, said setup and engine package changes have been nothing more than what the team would normally go through as it tries to improve performance.
"We haven't thrown away the season by any means," Grubb said Saturday. "As a team trying to get better, you continue to try new and different things, different approaches. I think that was part of our problem before, we didn't try some of those things."
With temperatures expected to be a bit warmer on Sunday, breaking into the low- to mid-60s, he said the temperature swing makes it "tough … trying to predict how your race package is going to work.
"But I feel like we've got a pretty good idea; we're not very far from our baseline that Denny always runs here. Obviously he knows how to get around this place."