Hamlin's return from injury no 'comeback,' but it's a risk
by Joe Medley
jmedley@annistonstar.com
May 03, 2013 | 2313 views |  0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
TALLADEGA -- Denny Hamlin tweeted caution to notions about his NASCAR racing return from a back injury.

He will get in the No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota to start Sunday’ Aaron’ 499, his first race since his March 24 crash at Fontana. Then he will get out and turn the car over to substitute driver Brian Vickers.

What to call that?

“Don’t call it a comeback,” Hamlin posted on Twitter on Thursday, after learning that doctors had cleared him.

Call it a risk.

It might be a miniscule risk. Hamlin said so Friday. The hit it would take to re-injure his back seriously probably would injure a healthy back, he said.

How careful has he been? He wanted to come back a week ago at Richmond, but he couldn’t get a unanimous call from doctors.

Hamlin’ apparent plan is to ride at a safe position on the track, likely toward the back of the field, then come off on the first caution flag. Hamlin compared it to a quarterback taking the snap and taking a knee in football.

He’ll pop out through a roof flap, because that’ more comfortable than crawling through the window. Vickers will slide in through the window.

They practiced the maneuver during Friday’ Sprint Cup practice. The team has the whole transfer down to about a minute, well within time to accomplish it within one caution lap on Talladega’ 2.66-mile tri-oval.

Thing is, it takes much less time for a chain-reaction crash to spark at Talladega, and that first caution could come with Hamlin in one of the mangled cars.

“As far as the first lap, early-on wreck, it definitely can happen,” Hamlin said. “We’ve seen it here at this race track on lap one, and we’ve seen it on the last lap.

“I’m obviously going to put myself in what I believe is a safe position. Obviously, you can’t help things like blown tires or whatever that could possibly happen.”

He has calculated the risk. The guy who stayed in his car last year on the first race back from knee surgery because he wanted to make it up to his team for getting hurt in a basketball game has decided it’ a risk worth taking.

“I understand what makes me a race car driver because I’ve been so determined to get back in the car -- win, lose or draw -- no matter what the circumstances or the repercussions might be,” he said.

Not every NASCAR driver would make the same calculation.

“You have to put faith in your doctors and listen to them; they are the experts,” said Jeff Gordon, whose hauler is parked next to Hamlin’ outside the Sprint Cup garage at Talladega. “Then you have to understand where you’re at in your career.

“If you have many, many years ahead of you, then you have a bright future and you have a team that supports you to get through that healing process then you need to take your time and think long term. If you’re somebody that is struggling to keep that ride, they are going to push the limits more and take that risk.”

Gordon said NASCAR drivers don’t think of themselves as being more at risk than the average person going to their 9-to-5 job. Then again, different drivers have difference circumstances.

“I think for me, I’m later in my career and have a family,” said Gordon, who has four Cup points championships. “And, so, an injury like what Denny went through, I don’t know. I might not come back from that just because, is it worth it?

“For Denny, I think it’ worth it for him to really take his time and do it right. What he’ doing this weekend, to me that makes sense. It’ Talladega Ñ there’ ways to avoid those incidents.”

Hamlin, 32, has a daughter, Taylor, born in January, but he has no championships.

Five races out of the car have hurt his championship chances for this season. He has fallen out of the top 10 to 28th in points. He is 71 points outside the top 20, where he must get over the next 17 races to be eligible for one of two wild-card spots in the Chase, Cup’ version of postseason.

By spending enough time in the car Sunday, he’ll get whatever points come from the No. 11 car’s finish.

By getting out, he lessens the likelihood of getting caught in Talladega’ famous “Big One” crash.

There’ also less of a chance Hamlin will be fighting for a lead late in the race, like he was with rival and former teammate Joey Logano at Fontana. They bumped on the last lap and got Hamlin loose, sending him down the track for a head-on plunge into a retaining wall.

Assuming Hamlin comes out of Sunday’ experience without mishap and his scheduled spinal scan next week is normal, he plans to run the full race next week at Darlington. Then he can fully resume his personal chase Ñ the 17-race run to get him enough points and wins to qualify for NASCAR’ official Chase.

“We’re just trying to buy myself another week obviously until Darlington,” he said, “but the risk is so minimal that it’ almost not even there.”

For now, Hamlin is a racer who says he rides comfortably in his racecar, and he’ aching to get into it for real.

”I cannot wait to get back in the car,” he tweeted Tuesday. “The smell of fuel and tires. Ahhh.”

Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, jmedley@annistonstar.com. On Twitter @jmedley_star.

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