TALLADEGA, Ala. — Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin says his Sunday will be just like a quarterback taking a single snap, then taking a knee: Quick, clean and doctor-approved.
But the more he talked about driving for the first time since suffering a fractured vertebra in a March 24 crash at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., the less it sounded like a sure-thing he’d park at the first caution of Sunday’s Aaron’s 499.
Hamlin said he’s medically cleared to drive as many laps as he wishes. He claims he felt no pain driving practice laps Friday at Talladega Superspeedway. The only difficulty is getting in and out of the car without twisting through the driver’s-side window.
So when pressed in a media appearance Friday, Hamlin never flat-out promised how soon, or even if, he’d give the steering wheel over to Brian Vickers.
“If I don’t get unbundled, I don’t get unbundled,” said Hamlin, trying to stay in contention to compete in the Chase, NASCAR’s Cup title run. “(But) you’re not going to win one of these races without being aggressive. And I don’t want to be aggressive right now.”
A broken back is nothing to mess with, but a consensus of doctors treating Hamlin signed off on his return to racing this week. Those same doctors had him skip Richmond the previous week.
Hamlin acknowledged that in the 1970s or ’80s, when NASCAR was all about daredevils, he might have driven in Martinsville the week after his injury. He says driving with this back injury is far less symptomatic than when he drove with a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in a pickup basketball game in January of 2010.
But that doesn’t detract from the fact that a broken back is much more dangerous to long-term health than a torn knee ligament. Hamlin acknowledged as much Friday.
“There is risk. Nobody knows. … A bone takes a year to heal,” said Hamlin. “But it would take such a significant hit (to aggravate the back fracture) that you’d probably be injured anyway.
“The risk is so minimal, it’s about not there.”
NASCAR’s scoring system obliges Hamlin to drive at least one lap per race as soon as he’s able. If he’s in the car at the race’s start, then results from a substitute driver count for him toward the championship.
The urgency is obvious. His team has 17 races to make up enough points to get into the Chase. As Hamlin put it, “Our Chase starts now.”
The pressure to drive is self-inflicted. Team owner Joe Gibbs told Hamlin he’s not concerned about this season, but rather for a healthy driver. Hamlin is rehabbing daily, strengthening his core and his hamstrings – since those support back function – and he is attached to a bone-stimulation device he describes as a “voodoo machine.”
Hamlin’s injury opens a question all sports face: When is an athlete just hurt – in pain, but effective – versus being injured in a debilitating way?
Veteran driver Jeff Gordon said that’s a decision unique to each driver’s circumstance. Young guys in danger of losing their rides might risk anything to stay in the car. Older, financially secure drivers with families – Gordon being one – would think twice in situations like Hamlin’s.
“An injury like what Denny went through, I don’t know – I might not come back from that, just because, is it worth it?” Gordon said Friday.
Hamlin recently became a father, but he doesn’t sound reluctant about getting back into a race car, even if it requires popping off the roof to avoid twisting his spine.
“I’m not scared,” Hamlin implored. “I’m not fearful.”