The pain is still evident in Denny Hamlin's back during Friday's practice at Talladega.
When you're a father, you become protective of your kids—and to a certain extent, kids that may not even be your own.
You try to give them guidance and become a role model to follow. You watch over them and try to do everything in your power to keep them from getting hurt—or letting someone else hurt them.
I have that same kind of feeling about Denny Hamlin's return to Sprint Cup competition this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway. While Hamlin is now 32, he's still a young kid in my mind, and I admit I'm very worried about his decision to get back behind the wheel of a race car.
His decision comes just five weeks after suffering a compression fracture in a lumbar vertebra on March 24 in a crash on the final lap of the race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
The injury was serious enough for Hamlin to miss the next four races—and being the fatherly figure I am, I believe the more prudent thing would be for him to sit out another one or two more races just to make sure he's completely healed.
I understand why he wants to race again: to prove he's beaten an injury that in most instances is recovery measured in months, not weeks. And, in my opinion, there is no worse racetrack for Hamlin to attempt his comeback at than Talladega.
Don't get me wrong, I love Talladega. It's one of my favorite racetracks.
But the combination of the high speeds at NASCAR's largest speedway, plus the propensity of at least one or more "big ones"—multi-car wrecks—during the course of the race makes Hamlin's decision all the more questionable.
Does he have something to prove to himself, like how tough he is to peg his return at NASCAR's toughest racetrack? No, I don't think it's that.
"There is going to be risk. There is risk," Hamlin said in a story Friday on NASCAR.com. "I don’t know the exact science, I don’t know the exact percentages, nobody knows. That’s what makes this really, really hard.
"With bone healing, it doesn’t mater if you break your arm, or break your leg, or whatever—a bone takes a year to heal. That’s realistic. But as far as I’ve been told and understand, it would take such a significant hit that you would probably be injured from it even if you were 100 percent healthy. ... The risk is so minimal, it’s almost not even there."
At the same time, Hamlin is keyed up to start earning points again in the Sprint Cup standings.
If he starts Sunday's race, even if he only runs maybe a quarter of the event, all driver points will still go to him—including a potential win if backup driver Brian Vickers manages to steer the No. 11 FedEx Toyota to victory lane.
Sure, Hamlin wants to put the memory of the injury behind him, while focusing solely on what's ahead and what still needs to be accomplished, namely, trying to find a way to still make the Chase for the Sprint Cup as one of two wildcard entries.
For the record, Hamlin is currently tied with Dave Blaney and David Ragan for 28th place in the standings—all three drivers 198 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson.
There's no question Hamlin has a lot of ground to make up to get into the top 20 and then become eligible as a potential wildcard entry. To do so, he'll likely have to win at least two or three races between now and the fall race at Richmond to make the Chase.
But in the whole big scheme of things, he's really not in all that bad of shape, being just 71 points behind 20th-ranked Kurt Busch.
So why the urgency to rush back and race at such a risky place like Talladega?
Has Hamlin forgotten Carl Edwards' horrendous wreck into the 'Dega front stretch catchfence a few years back? Or how about Kyle Larson having his race car disintegrate around him during the Nationwide series opener this season at Daytona in February?
Perhaps the best example of what Hamlin potentially faces—and runs the risk of—is what happened last October at Talladega. Remember how Tony Stewart refused to let the freight train of Michael Waltrip and Casey Mears get past him, going downtrack to block, only to trigger a massive 24-car crash that did a great deal of physical damage to both cars and drivers.
The most notable victim of that wreck was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was an innocent victim, yet suffered a concussion that knocked him out of the next two races, ending any chance of making a comeback to win his first Cup championship.
That's why I'm having such a hard time wrapping my head around why Hamlin has to come back this weekend. It's only the 10th race of the season. After Sunday's race, there are still 16 more races to make the Chase.
Why can't Hamlin wait until he's fully and completely healthy? Why can't he wait until the Coca-Cola 600 in a few weeks, or maybe even the early June race at Dover, which coincidentally, is sponsored by FedEx?
"We’re going to have to make a big, big run these next 17 weeks if we’re going to be part of the postseason," Hamlin said in the NASCAR.com story. "I’m excited about the challenge. Our Chase has got to start right now. We’ve got to perform each week like it is a Chase race, and do everything we can to get wins. Because if we don’t win, it really doesn’t matter."
But why run the risk of hurting yourself again (or worse) when there are still so many races and seasons ahead in Hamlin's future?
The way I see it, Hamlin, his team and Joe Gibbs Racing are going to a lot of extremes to not only put him in a race car this weekend, but even more extremes in trying to get him out. They've installed a roof hatch that Hamlin can climb out of when it's time to pass the reins—or in this case, the steering wheel—to Vickers to finish the remainder of the race.
In that same NASCAR.com story, Hamlin—perhaps a bit too naively in my opinion—compared his driving and exchange with Vickers, which they estimate will take just over a minute for Hamlin to unbelt and climb out and then Vickers will climb in and strap in, with a quarterback taking a knee after a snap.
"We are very much going to minimize our risk of reinjuring ourselves, which gives us one more week to heal," Hamlin said.
The interesting thing is Hamlin is due for another scan of his back next week, prior to the race at Darlington, just to make sure he doesn't hurt himself or do further damage in this Sunday's race.
So why bother racing at Talladega in the first place if that's the case? What happens if he stays out of harm's way, but still manages to cause further injury due to the bouncing of the car around the track or the unnatural movements he may have to make, particularly in exiting the race car?
Hamlin readily admitted in the same story that getting in, and especially out, of the car is painful. So why bother putting up with that pain? Just because he's a racer and racers believe they belong in their race car?
"There’s going to be a caution at some point, and I’d like to get out and ensure myself of one more week of healing,” said Hamlin, who recorded the seventh-fastest speed in Friday morning's practice before yielding to Vickers for the remainder of the day.
Let's face it, most "big ones" at Talladega typically occur in the second half of the race. That's when drivers start taking risks at a track that doesn't cotton kindly to risks being taken.
But that doesn't mean something can't happen on the first lap, too. Even Hamlin admits that's a possibility.
"It definitely could happen,” he said. “We’ve seen it here at this race track on Lap 1, 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 and things that could happen."
Talladega is such an unpredictable place that anything can happen there, and typically does. But even more, things that you don't expect to happen, ultimately happen, as well. Like Edwards' almost flying into the crowd. Like Ryan Newman, Rusty Wallace and a number of other drivers who've gone for the rides of their lives in end-over-end crashes over the years.
Sure, the wrecks make for great TV drama, not to mention water cooler or coffee break fodder between fans on Monday, but let's not forget we're talking about a young race car driver who still has a lot of racing ahead of him.
Would Hamlin, team owner Joe Gibbs and son J.D., crew chief Darian Grubb, Hamlin's fans and the sport as a whole ever be able to forgive themselves if, God forbid, something happens to him in Sunday's race?
What happens if he gets into an early wreck and can't get out of the race car, especially if it's flipped upside down? Even worse, how would his back hold up with such a violent wreck?
Denny Hamlin is only 32 years old. He has a good 15 years of racing ahead of him. That's why I just don't understand the logic in rushing back. Sure, he's been medically cleared, but that doesn't mean he's medically fully healed.
There's a huge difference there.
Which leads me back to where I started at, about being a father. Denny and longtime girlfriend Jordan Fish welcomed their first child, daughter Taylor James Hamlin, into the world on Jan. 20.
Doesn't Denny the father owe the most to Taylor and Jordan to be smart and wait until he's 100 percent recovered? If he hurts himself Sunday—even if it's an incident that he's just an innocent victim of, just like Earnhardt was in last fall's race—or worse, Denny will have plenty more time to spend with his girlfriend and child.
But at what price?
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