By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DOVER, Del. -- If Denny Hamlin were to give Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth a performance review for the first 28 races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, the verdict would be "Meets Expectations."
Though Kenseth's breakout career-best seven-win season may have stunned casual observers, Hamlin wasn't the least bit surprised at his new teammate's success.
"You can replay every interview I did before the season, and I said he would win six or seven races, and he's already at seven looking 10 right in the face at this point," Hamlin told the NASCAR Wire Service on Thursday during a break from lobbying for March of Dimes programs in Washington, D.C. "He's just underrated ... he's just not flashy. He just goes out there and does an amazing job."
Hamlin spent the day visiting United States senators and congressmen on Capitol Hill, helping to urge the passage of the Newborn Screening Saves Lives Reauthorization Act (S. 1417/H.R. 1281). Later that evening, Hamlin received the distinguished "Champion of Babies" award for his work in raising awareness of the March of Dimes' signature fundraiser "March for Babies."
Hamlin has endured health issues of his own this year. He suffered a compression fracture of his first lumbar vertebra in a wreck at Fontana, Calif., in late March, missed four races subsequently and made an early exit from his car at Talladega.
A chronic issue with bulging discs has kept him in pain throughout the season, with little opportunity to heal. Hamlin hopes to use the offseason to recuperate fully and concedes that surgery might be an option.
"I had some treatment done two weeks ago that usually lasts me about a month to a month and a half," Hamlin said. "Just basically got some shots to relieve pain, and hopefully what it's going to do is buy me a month and a half of relief to get healthy. The problem with our schedule is that I don't have enough time at home to rehab and do all the things I need to do to get better, so I need the offseason.
"Now I've got some relief. The last two weeks have been really great, as far as pain is concerned, so now I'm hoping this next month and a half -- from now until the end of the season -- I can spend time doing all the hard regimen stuff that I can do. That way I'll see, if it's not relieved by the end of that month-and-a-half term, whether I will need surgery or not."
More than anything, Hamlin hopes to be at full strength next season and able to give Kenseth, the current series leader, a run for his money.
"Really, I can't wait until next year to race him competitively," Hamlin said. "I haven't been (able to do so) here lately. At the beginning of the year, before all the injury stuff happened, we had some really good racing side-by-side, and we did throughout my entire career.
"We've always had awesome races together, and I just kind of want to get back to that."
GOOD NEWS FOR MWR
Amid the turbulence and controversy that have surrounded Michael Waltrip Racing since the final regular-season Sprint Cup event Sept. 6 at Richmond came a welcome piece of good news.
5-hour Energy announced Friday morning that company would return next season as a primary sponsor on Clint Bowyer's No. 15 Toyota. Bowyer's spin with seven laps left in the Richmond race started a sequence events that earned MWR severe penalties for trying to manipulate the outcome and ensure a Chase spot for one of its drivers, Martin Truex Jr.
NASCAR fined MWR $300,000 and docked each of its drivers 50 points, effectively knocking Truex out of the Chase. Subsequently, Bowyer and team owner Michael Waltrip have had little success convincing fellow drivers and the NASCAR fan base that the spin that changed the race wasn't intentional.
Truex's sponsor, auto parts retailer NAPA, announced it was opting out of its contract at the end of the year. 5-hour Energy initially indicated it was reviewing its sponsorship options, but by Friday, the review was complete.
"This week the 5-hour Energy team met after the New Hampshire race to discuss our future with Michael Waltrip Racing," the company posted on its Facebook page. "While our original plan was to announce the status of our sponsorship at the end of the year, this time frame left many concerned about their future. There are scores of passionate fans, numerous charitable organizations, and hundreds of hard-working MWR employees and their families who are directly impacted by 5-hour Energy's NASCAR sponsorship.
"After several internal discussions and meetings with MWR, we are prepared to announce our decision ahead of schedule. 5-hour Energy will be back as a sponsor of MWR and Clint Bowyer for 2014. We look forward to another great year of competitive racing. Go 15!"
WHAT ABOUT US?
Given the dominance of Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch in the first two Chase races, the staying power of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and the wide spread in the points standings, it's tempting to characterize the Chase as a three-man race.
To Greg Biffle, who's fifth in the standings, that's sheer nonsense.
"The Chase, from what I understand, is made up of 10 races," Biffle said Friday after Sprint Cup practice at Dover International Speedway. "And to be two races into the Chase and say it's a three-man race already to me seems silly. ...
"Take, for instance, last week (at New Hampshire). We finished third and moved up six spots in the points to fifth. I don't know how anyone would say it's a three-man race. ... I just think there are more than three cars in this thing right now."
'AFTER THE LAP' TICKETS ON SALE
Jeff Gordon break-dancing in the middle of the stage.
Clint Bowyer needling Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski mercilessly.
Fans who have attended the "NASCAR After the Lap" festivities during Sprint Cup Champions' Week invariably have gotten a rare look at their favorite drivers, who typically provide plenty of entertaining, lighthearted and unguarded moments during the celebration of the new champion.
Tickets for this year's event, sponsored by Ford and Coca-Cola, went on sale Sept. 16 at a cost of $20. NASCAR After the lap is scheduled for 5 p.m., Dec. 5 at the Pearl Palms Concert Theater in the Palms Casino Hotel in Las Vegas.
Fans can purchase tickets online at www.NASCARafterthelap.com, where they can also enter the NASCAR After the Lap sweepstakes. Two grand-prize winners will get all-inclusive VIP trips for two to After the Lap as part of their prize packages.