Why NASCAR's Denny Hamlin Shouldn't Be Rushed to Get Back Behind the Wheel

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistApril 8, 2013

It's pretty clear that a sidelined Denny Hamlin did not make for a good spectator Sunday at Martinsville.
It's pretty clear that a sidelined Denny Hamlin did not make for a good spectator Sunday at Martinsville.John Harrelson/Getty Images

I understand why so many people have spent the last two weeks talking about Denny Hamlin's lost season as he recovers from a fractured vertebrae in his lower back, suffered in a crash in Fontana, Calif.

Sure, Mark Martin filled in for Hamlin at Sunday's race in Martinsville, Va.—and did pretty darn well in the relief role, finishing 10th—while Brian Vickers will fill Hamlin's spot in the No. 11 FedEx Toyota this coming Saturday night in Texas.

After that remains anyone's guess. Odds are likely it'll be Vickers who continues to fill in until Hamlin is healed enough to return behind the wheel, but it could also be Elliott Sadler or someone else.

But what about Hamlin himself? Here's a young man who has suffered a very serious back injury. The early prognosis was that he'd be out from four to six weeks resting and recuperating.

The timeline is theoretically now down to two to four weeks if you count the two weeks that have already elapsed between Fontana and Martinsville.

That's a best-case scenario.

I understand his fans—and Hamlin himself—want to see him back racing. Yet how many really realize the ramifications of Hamlin's injury?

If he rushes back too soon and, God forbid, gets into another wreck, all the rehab and recovery will be for naught—not to mention he could re-injure his back even more seriously.

And why is so much emphasis being placed on whether Hamlin can return in time to still make the Chase for the Sprint Cup? Granted, to do so will be a tall order: He'll have to likely win at least two races between the time he returns and the second race at Richmond in late summer, as well as be in the top 20 in the season standings once the Richmond race concludes and the 10-race Chase begins.

I wrote a few days ago here on Bleacher Report about how Sterling Marlin lamented the fact he missed the final seven races of the 2002 season—and lost perhaps his best chance at a Cup championship in his career.

But Marlin did the smart thing: He listened to his doctors and didn't try to rush back. The word "paralyzed" and the resulting prospects of that possibility if he went against his doctors' recommendation have a way of bringing a person back to reality pretty quick.

Hamlin's injury is perhaps not as risky as Marlin's was, but that's not to underscore or make light of the long-term ramifications.

If Hamlin comes back too soon and gets into a wreck, particularly a serious one, he not only runs the risk of re-injury, he also runs the risk of an even more serious malady the second time around—including one that could potentially affect him for the rest of his life, let alone his career (like a propensity for a slipped disc, or a disc that develops premature arthritis).

Look at the upcoming Sprint Cup race schedule and here's what Hamlin is facing:

A. Four weeks exactly after Fontana would put the series at Richmond on April 27, Hamlin's home track. While it would be great to see him return to thundering hometown applause, it's also likely a bit early for him to come back.

Still, Hamlin was talking Friday at Martinsville that he was targeting to return at Richmond—and likely was the only person who is thinking that. At the same time, he also talked about how lucky he truly is the way the wreck at Fontana turned out.

"I'm thankful that my spine fractured where it did ... if it would have shifted and hit my spinal cord then you have paralysis and that's real,'' Hamlin told reporters. "I got really upset in the hospital in California when they told me what it was. I was in so much pain, I thought it was never-ending pain that was never going away. I felt that maybe I was done forever.''

B. Next up after Richmond would be Talladega. For Hamlin to come back at arguably the most unpredictable track on the circuit would be a huge mistake in my opinion. All Hamlin needs to do is talk to Dale Earnhardt Jr. about what being injured at 'Dega means.

C. It doesn't get much better the following week after 'Dega, as the Cup series moves on to Darlington, known to have the hardest walls on the circuit.

D. After that is the Sprint All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in mid-May. Given the format and shortened nature of the all-star event, that offers Hamlin the earliest, best possibility to return.

But it also means zero points, as it's a non-points-paying race. Is it worth it for him to return then with nothing but pride on the line?

E. One week after the all-star race, the series returns to Charlotte for the longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600. Do Hamlin fans really want him returning for the most physically and mentally challenging race of the season?

And then there's perhaps the most logical solution.

At this juncture—and I understand it's nearly two months away—my thinking is Hamlin should target his return for the June 2 FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks race at Dover International Speedway.

That way, there'd be absolutely no doubt or hesitation about his return. Sure, the season would definitely be lost at that point, but there are still a lot of positives to be garnered by seeing Denny return to the No. 11 Toyota at that race. It's practically a no-brainer.

First, the race is sponsored by Hamlin's primary sponsor, FedEx. The resulting publicity and build-up of Hamlin's return would guarantee a near-sellout. It'd be a homecoming of sorts because it'd be a FedEx-sponsored race,  and it's close enough to Hamlin's native Virginia to draw thousands more homeboys and homegirls eager to welcome him back and cheer him on.

Second, autism is a cause near and dear to Hamlin's heart.

Third—and most important—it's pretty much guaranteed that Hamlin would finally be fully recovered from his injury and could soldier on behind the wheel with little risk.

You can't say the same about racing at places like 'Dega, Darlington or Charlotte.

Missing Sunday's race cost Hamlin eight places in the standings (he's now 18th, 86 points behind series leader and Martinsville race winner Jimmie Johnson). By the time he returns to racing, Hamlin mathematically could drop as much as 20 to 30 more places before he finally returns to racing.

I realize that if he misses eight races in total (including Sunday's race at Martinsville as well as next month's non-points all-star race), that's a tall order for fans and Hamlin himself to swallow when he was originally expected to miss four to six races.

Sure, FedEx has millions of sponsorship dollars invested in Hamlin. He's been a wonderful representative for the company, as well as an equally good ambassador for NASCAR as a whole.

But is there really a price tag that can be placed upon Hamlin and his health? If he ultimately winds up missing more than four to six races, is that really going to be a crime or tragedy?

I'm betting that FedEx has already realized that for all the attention it will receive if Hamlin makes a speedy recovery and returns sooner rather than later, that would be a drop in the bucket for all the goodwill that can be derived if the company keeps Hamlin sidelined because it cares for his health and well-being more than wins or his place in the standings.

Will it really hurt NASCAR if Hamlin's doctors don't clear him to return back to racing, or if his injury doesn't heal properly—or takes longer than anticipated?

Instead of worrying about whether he makes the Chase or not, shouldn't the biggest priority right now be on his long-term health? Shouldn't racing and everything else take second priority to whether he'll be 100 percent when he finally does return to his race car—whenever that is, or needs to be?

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