MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Denny Hamlin, a four-time winner in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition at Martinsville Speedway, said he took a "safe approach" after a rusted piece of metal in his eye blurred his vision and kept him out of the circuit's most recent race.
Hamlin said he didn't want to be a liability on the track last weekend and credited NASCAR's new format for playoff eligibility, which allowed him to miss the event without thwarting his championship hopes. He also said that while he wanted to race, he knew that series officials, team personnel and doctors had his best interests in mind.
"I hope this doesn't keep drivers from going to the infield care center and making sure you're 100 percent before any race," Hamlin said Friday. "You can't mess with your vision. That's all we've got as race car drivers."
Hamlin also fired off at detractors who felt like the medical episode altered others' perceptions of him, saying his health was his personal business and that he would be foolish to put his life at risk.
"I'm done justifying and defending myself on those things," he said. "Just because I'm out there in the public ... that bugs me, because I'm a human being."
Doctors notified NASCAR officials of Hamlin's medical clearance Wednesday, allowing him to compete in Sunday's STP 500 (1 p.m. ET, FOX). Back behind the wheel of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on Friday afternoon, Hamlin turned the fastest lap in the opening Sprint Cup Series practice on the 0.526-mile track.
Last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, NASCAR officials ruled Hamlin out after his vision deteriorated from an initial check-up in the infield care center the day before. The decision was made to find a replacement driver after he failed a lateral vision test Sunday morning.
Hamlin left the track mere minutes before the command to start engines, carried to a local hospital for a CT scan and further tests. Sam Hornish Jr. subbed for Hamlin and finished 17th as an emergency replacement in the Auto Club 400.
Hamlin said that he started having eye issues in Friday's practice at Auto Club, when irritation in his upper eyelid led him to believe he had a sty. Team officials initially reported the problem Sunday as a sinus infection that resulted in irritation and altered vision in his left eye, but doctors found and removed a sliver of metal. Hamlin's condition rapidly improved and he was released to fly back to North Carolina on Sunday night.
It was the second straight year that Hamlin wound up in a hospital on race day at the Southern California track. In 2013, a last-lap crash with rival Joey Logano left him with a broken back that forced him out of four races and part of a fifth.
"It's just bad luck," Hamlin said. "Track hates me."
Even with the missed race, Hamlin still ranks 11th in the Sprint Cup standings, 46 points behind series leader Carl Edwards.
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