Recoveries a reason for thanksgiving
November 27, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Cars are safer than ever before, but auto racing still rife with risks
It was a single snapshot that captured two of the dominant themes from this past season, as contradictory as they might seem. In Victory Lane, there was Denny Hamlin celebrating his first race win in a season interrupted by a fractured bone in his back. And up on the championship stage at Homestead-Miami Speedway, there was Tony Stewart -- he of the broken leg suffered in a sprint-car accident -- leaning on a cane while congratulating Jimmie Johnson on his sixth NASCAR title. Taken in sum, there was pain, joy, recovery and triumph, all present at the same time.
There was plenty of all of that this year, in a season that cast both the risks and rewards of auto racing in stark detail. On one side is Johnson, creeping to within a single title of tying the sport's all-time record; on the other is Stewart, a multiple-time champion in his own right, missing the final third of the season with injuries to his right leg that were more than just mere broken bones. On one side is Matt Kenseth, enjoying the best year of his career; on the other is his teammate Hamlin, missing four races due to his back injury, and falling short of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time.
It was a season that reminded everyone there are no absolutes in terms of safety -- just ask Michael Annett, who missed nearly three months after fracturing his sternum in a crash during the NASCAR Nationwide Series opener at Daytona. It was a year that reminded us that drivers are indeed human, as the off-track health battles fought by Brian Vickers, Eric McClure and Trevor Bayne do attest. It was a campaign that illustrated the gap in safety systems between NASCAR and many lower circuits, brought home in the sprint-car crashes that injured Stewart and took the life of former NASCAR driver Jason Leffler.
"I think the whole motorsports industry has gotten better and safer," Mike Helton, NASCAR's president, said the day after Stewart broke his leg racing at an Iowa short track. "But it's still a dangerous sport, and you have occurrences like we've been reminded of."
No question, this was a year in which a lot of drivers battled a lot of pain, perhaps more than we're accustomed to witnessing in a sport that's been transformed by breakthroughs like head-and-neck restraints, impact-absorbent walls and race cars that protect their inhabitants better than ever before.
NASCAR has come so far over the last 15 years in terms of safety, it feels like a completely different and far more modern sport. The work being done in that area at the Research & Development Center is downright heroic, something that's evident every time a driver walks away from a hard crash.
And yet, as Helton's words and the events of this past season clearly illustrate, the risk is never removed completely from the equation. Race cars at high speeds are still going to sometimes act unpredictably, vehicles are still going to crash, a few drivers are still going run off and race midweek at short tracks that may not feature the most modern of safety advances. But NASCAR manages all of it better than it ever has, and nothing will bear that out more than the sight of the three drivers whose injuries partially defined this season -- Stewart, Hamlin, and Annett -- all in the starting field for the 2014 Daytona 500.
Not that those returns will occur easily -- Stewart in particular is traversing a rough road that's already seen the guy endure three surgeries and battle one infection, all of which speaks to how badly hurt he was in the first place. Mark Martin will do all the preseason testing in the No. 14 car, but the plan is for Stewart to be in the seat for the Great American Race. While Annett never recaptured the form that saw him finish fifth in final Nationwide points in 2012, he got better as he went along this past season, and is moving to the Sprint Cup level with Tommy Baldwin Racing in 2014.
And then there's Hamlin, who opened this year as a legitimate championship contender and was sixth in points at Auto Club Speedway, where he and Joey Logano tangled on the final lap and the No. 11 car slid hard into an inside wall. The resulting compression fracture of a lumbar vertebra kept Hamlin out all of four races effectively scuttling his title hopes. His return became a physical and mechanical slog, one in which Hamlin battled back pain and balky race cars at the same time, leading many to question which one was really behind his uncharacteristically poor results.
His victory in the finale at Homestead helped quell some of that, for certain. And even better news was that Hamlin wouldn't require surgery on his back, something that had concerned him because of both the unpredictability of the procedure as well as the prospective timetable for recovery with Speedweeks 2014 just over the horizon. A system of injections and rehabilitation therapy has provided him with relief from the "lightning bolts of pain" he said he was feeling when his back was at its worst, and led to improved performance inside the car.
"Luckily now things have really taken a turn, and every day continues to get better," he said at Homestead. "Looking forward to this offseason, staying hard at it, coming back strong."
Which, for any of the drivers touched this year by injury or illness, is all anyone can hope for. Hamlin is a winner again, and despite his difficulties Stewart has progressed from a bed to a scooter to a cane. On the final race weekend of the 2013 season, they were each supporting players in a larger celebration that centered on Johnson, hoisting that silver trophy once again. On the final race weekend of the 2014 season, it could very well be one of them on that championship stage, turning the page from recovery to rejoicing. They'll certainly have the opportunity, at least, and this week especially that is reason for thanksgiving indeed.