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Denny Hamlin healthy, hungry for 2014 bounceback

January 30, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Gibbs driver eager to erase subpar 2013, return to contending form

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For Denny Hamlin, the crash was only the beginning. Then there was the injury, and the lingering discomfort, all followed by a wave of self-doubt.

It all combined to sink Hamlin's 2013 season, a campaign marred by a broken back vertebra suffered in a final-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway, which in turn forced him to miss the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time in his career. But it was worse than that -- not only did he miss all of four races and most of a fifth, but when he came back he was still hurting, and that pain had such a negative effect on performance that the Joe Gibbs Racing driver wondered if he had lost it.

"I crashed going for the lead, and next thing you know, I come back and  -- what happened?" he asked Thursday, on the final day of the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway. Now, though, he can look at all of it in retrospect. These days Hamlin is the winner of the most recent race he competed in, feeling better physically than perhaps he has ever, and convinced this coming season will bring a return to the elite status his injury forced him to temporarily leave behind.

"My outlook is so much more positive," said Hamlin, who despite missing the Chase won last year's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to keep alive his streak of winning at least one race in each of his full-time seasons.

"Obviously, if we had finished the year struggling and not won Homestead … we would have some big questions going into 2014, on whether it was the physical aspect that was keeping us competitive, or was it mental aspect. Sometimes as a driver you wonder -- have I just lost it? We quickly saw that we didn't just lose it. It was more of a physical thing. When I felt better, we ran better. So as good as I feel now, I don't see any reason why we can't be right back where we were on top."

Getting to that point, though, wasn't easy. Late last year, well after his return, the 23-time race winner was clearly still in pain. "Running (21st) at Richmond was inexcusable. I never should have been in the car at Richmond, as bad as I felt," he said.

Hamlin was considering offseason back surgery, and all the unknowns that presents, when he finally discovered an injection therapy that numbed his back enough so he could get into the gym and rehabilitate it. That treatment, he said, directly relates to his improved runs at the end of last season, capped by the victory at Homestead.

"Once we found these injection treatments with about a month to go in the season, that bought me time in the gym," he said. "Where before, even when I went, I just couldn't do any of the exercises to do rehab or get stronger, because I was in just so much pain. ... It's numbed me up for so long now, it's bought me time to get stronger, and now I've weaned off them and I feel better physically than I have probably ever as far as my back is concerned."

Hamlin said he's put in more than 140 hours in the gym to get where he's at now, a long way from the days when Gibbs held a teleconference with five different spinal specialists -- "the most expensive phone call in NASCAR history," the team owner called it -- to determine an initial course of treatment. Those on his No. 11 team have no doubts about the driver's ability to get back to the top.

"None on my part," crew chief Darian Grubb said. "Seeing him and seeing the excitement in his eye, hearing him talk and the inflection in his voice, you can tell he's ready to go. He's come in the shop every week working with the guys, and he's been really involved with the team. And the Homestead aspect really helped that, because now he can come in with a smile on his face. He doesn't feel like the Denny downer coming in -- man, we haven't pulled off a win this year, it’s been a terrible season. We capped it off right. We came up short in our championship goals for the organization, but we did out part trying to do everything we could do."

The changes, though, are more than physical for Hamlin, who had established himself as JGR's most consistent championship contender prior to Matt Kenseth's arrival last season.

"I think last year, for him, sitting out those races and then everything that happened to him … I think it gave him a burning desire to get back in there," Gibbs said. "To get that last win, that was about as emotional as I've seen him. So I think he went into the offseason on a high. Sometimes when you're away from something like that, you realize how much you miss it. I think that was the case with Denny."

Grubb can see it, too. "I really feel like it gave him more of an appreciation of what it is he gets to do for a living every day," the crew chief said of his driver's injury and subsequent layoff.

"After being with him in the hospital and how emotional that was, having to come back and sit on the pit box for those four races he sat out, it was an incredible growing experience for him to realize, man, what I get to do is a privilege. And he's done everything better that I can see as far as eating right and taking care of himself. And he's pushing the team guys to do the same thing, because we're in the same grind … and taking care of yourself will pay dividends when it comes down to fighting for the Chase."

Hamlin will admit, before his injury, the success seemed to come easy. While he said he never took anything for granted, his team knocked out the race wins and Chase berth with such regularity, there was no reason to think they wouldn't just keep on coming. Last season's saga made him realize that nothing is guaranteed.

"It was just so easy. For us, (winning) had been easy," he said. "We'd make the Chase with no sweat every single year, and then  next thing you know you have a year where you really, really, truly struggle, it makes you appreciate the process it took to get there and what it takes to maintain staying at that level. So I had to go back to work. Not just watching different data and things like that, but on me. Getting back in the gym and making sure I'm as healthy as I can possibly be for 2014. I've put in my hours. Many, many hours. I won't be the weak link when it comes to our performance this year."

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