For the third time this season, Denny Hamlin was forced to exit a Sprint Cup Series race early due to a hard crash. His most recent excursion into the wall should have Hamlin considering sitting out the rest of the 2013 campaign and letting a replacement driver finish out the year.
The first major hit of the season for Hamlin happened at Fontana back in March. While battling with Joey Logano for the lead on the final lap, Logano got into Hamlin. The contact sent Hamlin spinning down the track, and head on into the inside retaining wall.
The spot where Hamlin made impact was not protected by the SAFER barriers.
The end result saw Hamlin suffer a compression fracture to his vertebra. The injury required six weeks to heal, forcing Hamlin out of the car for four full races and to have to be relieved from a fifth. Mark Martin and Brian Vickers each filled in as replacement drivers of the No. 11 Toyota during Hamlin’s absence.
Hamlin’s second hard crash came at Dover, which was his third full race back. Then there were Sunday’s issues in Kentucky.
The trouble in Kentucky started early for Hamlin. On Lap 38 he lost a tire. The team replaced it, made some repairs and sent him on his way. Over the next 100 laps, he battled his way into the top 10, when calamity struck again.
Just past the halfway mark of the race, Hamlin had another tire issue that shot his car straight into the outside wall. The damage sent him to the garage and was significant enough to end his day.
Hamlin then voluntarily went to the infield care center to get checked out. When asked about it, Hamlin said that he had just gotten his “bell rung,” according to David Caraviello of NASCAR.com. He said the hit gave him a headache, which was his primary reason for making the trip to the care center.
When asked if his back was bothered by the hit, Hamlin responded that it was fine. "That was the least of the concerns after this," he told reporters.
While Hamlin claims to be suffering no lingering effects, sitting out the rest of the season may not be a terrible idea. Hamlin climbed back into his car just six weeks after his initial back injury. The hope was that he would be able to win a couple of races, get into the top 20 in points to be eligible for a wild card and ultimately qualify for a spot in the Chase, all while having missed four races.
With nine races remaining before the Chase starts, Hamlin has yet to notch a victory. He currently sits 25th in the standings and is unofficially 104 behind 20th-place Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Hamlin is not mathematically eliminated, but the odds of making a serious run at the Chase are clearly not in his favor. At this point it may be in Hamlin’s best interest to sit out for the remainder of the season in order to give his back a chance to fully heal, without risking further injury.
I’m sure that his primary sponsor, FedEx, and car manufacturer, Toyota, would support Hamlin if that were his decision. Ultimately his health should be more of a priority than winning races.
When asked about the possibility of sitting Hamlin out for the remainder of the year, team owner Joe Gibbs said he didn’t see any reason, according to the Caraviello report.
“I think Denny wants to stay after it and have a chance to get some wins for FedEx. And who knows what’s going to happen. We could get hot.” said Gibbs. He later added, “We’ll just go after it and do the best we can. I think Denny feels that way too.”
Hamlin is one of the sport's young stars and a yearly threat to win the championship. He is a proven race winner and a constant near the top of the standings. At this point, as far out of contention as he is, I’m not sure the risk is worth the reward as far as this season is concerned.
Ultimately, if Hamlin decides to remain in his car for the rest of the year, we can only hope that he endures no setbacks. It would be a shame to see it come to a point where the decisions made about his racing career are put back into the hands of a doctor rather than left in his own.