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2013-05-01 / Sports

Injury frustrates Hamlin’s on- and off-track ambitions

By Jim McConnell


He wasn’t medically cleared to race, but Chesterfield native Denny Hamlin still made an appearance at Richmond International Raceway last week to promote his charity race. The woman in the photo was not identified. He wasn’t medically cleared to race, but Chesterfield native Denny Hamlin still made an appearance at Richmond International Raceway last week to promote his charity race. The woman in the photo was not identified. Denied medical clearance to race at his hometown track, NASCAR star and county native Denny Hamlin recently spent his fifth consecutive weekend in street clothes. And he’s obviously less than thrilled to be doing so.

Hamlin’s frustration isn’t limited to his inability to climb into the cockpit of his No. 11 Toyota. Basic daily tasks have proven to be challenging for the new father, whose daughter, Taylor James, was born in January.

“I can’t even lift the baby in or out of the crib because I can’t bend over,” he said in an interview last week at Richmond International Raceway. “I can’t roll around on the floor and do the things I want to do because I’m stuck in one position all the time.”

Hamlin, a Manchester High School graduate, has been bothered for several years with bulging disks in his back. That problem was exacerbated when he sustained a compression fracture in his lower spine after a hard, headon collision with the inside retaining wall at Auto Club Speedway in California. The injury in the March 24 race has had a profound effect on both his professional and personal lives, Hamlin acknowledged.

Hamlin’s doctors initially established a sixweek recuperation period, which meant he’d miss five races and return to the track May 11 at Darlington Raceway.

Hamlin tried to accelerate that timetable so he could race on Richmond’s 3/4-mile oval, one of his favorite tracks on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. But he learned during a meeting with his doctors last week that his L-1 vertebrae hadn’t healed sufficiently to allow him to return to competition.

“There’s no exact science to the risk,” he said. “No one really knows what the risk will be if I race now or two weeks from now or a year from now. Bone healing is completely subjective.

“Everyone is erring on the cautious side because no one ultimately wants to be responsible and have their name on the line of clearing a driver, and then he goes out and gets hurt.”

Hamlin, who noted with a chuckle that he drove himself from the Richmond airport to the racetrack without incident, also acknowledged that “everyone is trying to protect me from myself.”

“I‘d rather just go [race],” he said. “Obviously the doctors are more informed than I am. But this sport has really changed. It used to be based on driver feel, and it’s not that way anymore.”

After missing his fourth consecutive race, Hamlin faces even longer odds in his quest to accumulate enough points to qualify for NASCAR’s 10-race playoffs and earn his first Sprint Cup championship.

He hopes his doctors will clear him to at least start Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. Under NASCAR rules, a driver who starts a race receives all the points from his car’s finish even if he needs a relief driver after the first lap.

Hamlin expects to be back in the car full time beginning with the Darlington race. If he’s still not medically cleared by then, he’ll strongly consider having surgery to repair the bulging disks so he can be fully healthy and ready to go in time for the start of the 2014 season.

“We have to have a shut-off point, where we’re not just out here racing for nothing,” he said.

In the short term, the 32-year-old knows he has to live with constant discomfort in his back. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing a level of pain that would require bed rest, Hamlin described his pain as a 7.

“The thing that bothers me is that it does affect my daily life,” he added. “A lot of people out there have back pain, but I’m too young to have this kind of back pain.”

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