NASCAR Great Sterling Marlin Can Relate to Denny Hamlin's Hard Wreck and Injury

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistApril 4, 2013

If anyone can relate to what Denny Hamlin is going through, it's former Cup driver Sterling Marlin.
If anyone can relate to what Denny Hamlin is going through, it's former Cup driver Sterling Marlin.Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

While the injuries they sustained in severe wrecks were different, long-time NASCAR great Sterling Marlin can relate to what Denny Hamlin is going through after the latter's wreck at Fontana nearly two weeks ago.

The impact of the vicious head-on crash into an inside retaining wall at Auto Club Speedway not only lifted Hamlin's car off the ground, but it also caused a fractured vertebrae in his lower back that will sideline him for another four to six weeks while he recovers.

Marlin, a former two-time Daytona 500 winner, led the then-Winston Cup points standings through much of the 2002 season. As the season wore on, it looked more and more like the Tennessee native was on his way to his first Cup championship.

Then came the fall race at Kansas Speedway, where Marlin took a vicious hit that knocked him out of the race and the season's seven remaining races.

Instead of Marlin becoming the season champ, he'd watch from the sidelines as Tony Stewart won his first Cup title.

Marlin's wreck was as bad, if not worse, than Hamlin's, as was the resulting injury, a cracked vertebrae in his neck. While Hamlin's injury is indeed severe, Marlin's came with the added caveat from his doctor: He risked permanent paralysis if he came back too soon and wound up in another wreck.

I had the opportunity to interview Marlin this past Saturday while hosting "The Frontstretch" on SiriusXM NASCAR radio, channel 90.

And while Marlin's injury was different than Hamlin's—neck versus lower back—the logistics of dealing with such serious injuries are similar.

"Well, there's two ways to look at it," Marlin said with a laugh. "You wish you never went to the hospital, let them check you out and you kept racing. "The good thing is they found it [the cracked vertebrae]. If I had another wreck a week later, there's a good chance I could have been paralyzed.

"I'm not much at going to the doctors and listening, but I listened pretty hard on that deal. I knew then that my season was over. NASCAR wasn't going to let me race until I got healed up."

Marlin can relate to Hamlin chomping at the bit to get back in a race car. He was the same way.

But the most important thing is for Hamlin to look ahead to when he'll be able to race again.

Still, that's difficult, Marlin said, because Hamlin likely can't help but replay the incident at Fontana over and over in his mind.

"He's probably thinking what he could have done differently," Marlin said. "He wasn't at fault, absolutely none. He just got crowded up and was racing for the lead and the win.

"Denny stayed in the gas to try to keep the car off the wall, and I guess he just overestimated how fast he was coming off the banking and hit the inside wall head-on. If he had it to do all over again, he'd probably have spun it out, looped and kept on going. He tried to save the car instead of hitting the wall head-on."

Fortunately for both Hamlin and Marlin, the injuries they suffered are both recoverable. While it will take Hamlin time to reach that level, Marlin said that rest and rehab prevented any lingering residual pain.

"It don't hurt a bit [today]," Marlin said. "[My doctors] told me that it's probably stronger than it was before."

Next to his recovery, perhaps the biggest thing Hamlin will have to deal with is patience, Marlin said.

One thing Marlin suggested Hamlin do, if possible, is to try to attend some upcoming races while he's recovering.

While it will be tough to see another driver in his car, just being around the racing community and atmosphere will be good for Hamlin, Marlin said.

"I went to every race," Marlin said. "Coors had me doing a lot of appearances, so I went to the race and maybe leave halfway through after watching part of the race. I'd come in on Friday, do a couple appearances for Coors on Friday and Saturday and then go home Sunday.

"It beat being bored to death. My job at the racetrack is to drive the car. But to see someone else driving your car, it's hard to sit there and watch."

Hamlin has endured other injuries during his racing career, most of which have been due to non-racing incidents, including playing basketball or horseplay. But he's always managed to continue racing, unlike his current situation.

"[Hamlin's] doing the right thing," Marlin said. "It's unfortunate and a hard hit—kind of a head-on shot. He's a great racer, would have probably had a chance to win the championship and then something happens, but that's part of it."

I asked Marlin whether Hamlin might have hesitation climbing back behind the wheel.

"No, not a bit," Marlin said. "It's like them old cowboys riding them wild bulls, they get throwed and get right back on 'em. It's all you've done all your life. You don't even think about it."

Marlin then recalled a wreck he had that was an even more difficult situation than the one at Kansas, which abruptly ended his 2002 season and championship hopes.

"The worst wreck I ever had was at Bristol, when I blew a left rear tire, hit the wall backwards and caught on fire and had some pretty, pretty bad burns," Marlin said. "The wreck [at Kansas] and broken neck was a piece of cake."

Marlin retired from NASCAR racing after 2009 at the age of 52. He made just six starts that season, finishing 40th, 40th, 42th, 39th, 38th and 35th. He also failed to qualify on speed five other times.

He knew it was time to call it a career after more than three decades of racing. Ironically, the last race of his career was at Martinsville, site of this Sunday's race.

Marlin still races at his home track of Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, roughly about eight races a year, primarily in the Late Model Division. He also oversees and works about 850 acres of farmland and rides herd over several dozen head of cattle.

Surprisingly, Marlin doesn't miss NASCAR racing all that much. I asked him if he'd ever consider coming back to the sport as a team owner or in another management role.

"Not really, Marlin said. "I just got done after doing it for 30-some years, helping my dad [Coo Coo Marlin] and me doing it, flying all over the country and gone all the time. I just pretty much got burned out on it.

"That long a time, I didn't mind the travel around here [his Nashville base], but when we had to pack up and go out to Sonoma and Fontana and all the way to the west coast two or three times a year, you just got to where you dreaded it, you didn't really want to go. You'd rather stay around Bristol, Talladega and Martinsville, them good old tracks."

As for the racing of today in NASCAR, including the new Gen 6 race car, Marlin is non-plussed.

"Myself, Rusty [Wallace], Ricky Rudd and [the late Dale] Earnhardt, we came through a time when NASCAR was really starting to grow," Marlin said. "If me or somebody wanted to build us a race team, we'd buy a chassis from somebody, hang a body, hire somebody to do your motors and then go to Daytona and race.

"Now, it's gotten so sophisticated with engineers, it'd be impossible—unless you had tons and tons of money to start a race team. By doing all that, it just took a lot of the fun out of it for me. Before, you could have your cousins or friends to help you, but now it's a science to it. You have to have 30 engineers just to run good."

All quotes in this story were obtained firsthand by the author.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski


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