MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Denny Hamlin said he took a "safe approach" after a rusted piece of metal in his eye blurred his vision and kept him out of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' most recent race. While he was thankful to be back in the cockpit Friday afternoon, he bristled at the notion hinting that his setback could be rooted in a carefree lifestyle.
"It's my business. People who think negatively or think that we sidestepped some kind of drug test or something is ridiculous," Hamlin said Friday at Martinsville Speedway, where he is a four-time winner in Sprint Cup competition. "I'm in one of the top three cars in NASCAR; I'd have to be an absolute moron -- moron -- to risk that. I have a daughter that I've got to provide for for a real long time and for people to question who I am inside and outside the race car. I've never done anything to even put that in question."
Hamlin's absence from the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway raised speculation about what was causing his vision problems. Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. was among those looking for answers beyond the initial diagnosis of a sinus infection, saying that NASCAR should be transparent in reporting the medical problems of his fellow competitors in an interview with USA TODAY. But a NASCAR spokesperson told the newspaper that information and updates should come from race teams or the driver himself, citing medical privacy laws.
When public conjecture called Hamlin's lifestyle into question, the 33-year-old Virginia native sounded off. He said that he rarely consumes alcohol "at all, hardly" and has never used drugs, adding that it's a stretch to believe otherwise simply because he chooses to spend personal time out in public places such as Charlotte Bobcats games or nightclubs.
"I'm as clean as they come," Hamlin said. "I don't know why people question who I am outside the race track because I worked too hard to get here, for one, to throw it all away. If anyone has any questions about that, they can ask me directly. ... It bothers me that my character is questioned and people think that there's some kind of conspiracy.
"I'm done justifying and defending myself on those things -- I'm not going to let those people drag me down. It's just frustrating -- just because I'm out there a little bit more in the public that bugs me because I'm a human being and I like doing fun things. If people think I have to go out and I have to drink to have fun, they're wrong and they haven't hung out with me because I don't. It just bothers me because there's people that like to make rumors and of course within our NASCAR community rumors become truth when enough people say it. I'm done."
Hamlin was back behind the wheel of the No. 11 JGR Camry on Friday afternoon, turning the fastest lap in the opening Sprint Cup Series practice on the 0.526-mile track. Doctors notified NASCAR officials of Hamlin's medical clearance Wednesday, allowing him to compete in Sunday's STP 500, where he will start second (1 p.m. ET, FOX).
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 described the process in detail Friday at the track, saying he didn't want to be a liability in competition. He 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 and that sitting out was becoming inevitable as race-day morning ticked away.
"I hope this doesn't keep drivers going to the infield care center and make sure you're 100 percent before any race," Hamlin said. "Drivers are going to drive through being sick and under the flu and things like that -- you can do that. You can't mess with your vision. That's all we've got, that what we have to go off of when we're driving these cars."
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, who was unsure whether the stray metal came from a cooling vent or outside the window net, rapidly improved after the extraction 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 Sprint Cup standings, 46 points behind series leader Carl Edwards. While Edwards wasn't intimately familiar with Hamlin's case, he did say that he trusted NASCAR's medical judgment implicitly.
"The medical staff in NASCAR knows more about me and keeps better tabs on me than any doctor I've ever been around, except for maybe my wife," said Edwards, who leads Earnhardt by just one point. "They're amazing. I'll say another thing, I think that at first blush when people say we should have a traveling team of doctors. Well, being around the few doctors I've been around, it seems that I personally feel very comfortable with local doctors and the way NASCAR goes and finds the folks that are working day-in and day-out. So if I have a major injury let's say here at Martinsville, I feel pretty confident that I'll be taken care of by a doctor that, A, he's dealing with that stuff all the time and B, he's very familiar with the local medical facilities and the way that the care works there.
"As I learn more about Denny's situation, I obviously have a couple of questions, but I feel pretty good. I've had great interaction with the medical staff at NASCAR."
Hamlin also wasn't lacking for strong opinions on his odds for scoring his first Sprint Cup win of the season at the paper-clip-shaped layout. He's led multiple laps in the last nine races at Martinsville, but has just one top-five finish to show for himself in the last five races here.
That luck would change if Hamlin collects his fifth of the track's trademark grandfather clock trophies, as he predicts.
"I'm going to win it this weekend," Hamlin said, "I promise."
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