Read more: Martin to fill in for Hamlin
Denny Hamlin is days removed from an accident that fractured one of his vertebra, and in the hours immediately following left him wrapped up in a neck brace and unable to eat. His Joe Gibbs Racing team is working to find a replacement driver for the five races he'll miss while recovering. But the perennial championship contender on the Sprint Cup Series is already thinking about getting back in the car -- and perhaps still making a charge at the title.
"I think he's definitely thinking about it," JGR team president J.D. Gibbs said Thursday. "But at the same time, your safety is more important than those points. I think for us, we'll take it easy. You definitely keep it in the back of your mind, as does he -- hey, we've still got a shot ?. Really, I was thinking it was over. When you kind of lay it out, the way the points system works, there's a shot. And I know Denny wants to be a part of that."
Hamlin suffered a compression fracture in his lower back after a final-lap crash Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, where he and former teammate Joey Logano made contact racing for the victory and Hamlin's No. 11 car struck an inside wall not protected by the SAFER barrier. He was airlifted to a local hospital, where he spent the night. Tuesday, Charlotte-area neurosurgeon and spinal specialist Dr. Jerry Petty told Hamlin that he wouldn't require surgery, but would need six weeks to recover.
If Hamlin keeps to that timetable, he'd miss five Sprint Cup events and return May 11 at Darlington. He'd also be a long shot to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- which he's never missed -- given that he'd have to win races and be in the top 20 in points to have any hopes of earning a wild-card berth.
"All the guys are just discouraged," Gibbs said on a conference call with reporters. "They were thinking as we all were, maybe he could start and let someone else drive a few of the races. But when we got the results, they were really frustrated and bummed out. Just because they know how good Denny is, and the shot we had."
Even so, Gibbs wouldn't discount Hamlin making a run at the playoff once he gets back in the car, or the No. 11 still contending for the owners' championship. The team announced Mark Martin as a substitute for the next race at Martinsville.
Meanwhile, Hamlin is dealing with not only the physical pain of his injury, but also the frustration of missing time in the car.
"He's handling it well, but I know he's just frustrated," Gibbs said. "The good news we got from Dr. Petty is, hey, it's not a major fracture. It's not ligament damage, both of which would require surgery. It's just a healing process. And really, you don't know how long it will take. It's just kind of up to Denny's body. But he's handling it well. We're staying in touch with him and his team, asking what do you think, would this person make sense, and just keeping him a part of the process. He's been through this before. He's a tough dude. And so I think for him, he's fighting to get back in the car as fast as he can."
In 2010, Hamlin returned to the car 10 days after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his knee, and gritted his way through a full race at Phoenix before going on to enjoy his best season on NASCAR's premier series. Gibbs visited Hamlin before flying home Sunday evening, and could see his driver was dealing with a great deal of pain, which he said has abated somewhat in the days since.
"I think now, it's painful," Gibbs said. "Right away, it was super painful. And you had to keep the neck collar on and they wouldn't let you eat, so that was even more frustrating for him. I think when he got some of that done and got back home, he's feeling a little better. But it still hurts."
Even so, Gibbs said Hamlin has been exchanging texts messages with Grubb, and he believes the driver will play an active role on the team even while someone else is driving his car.
"I think he'll be involved," Gibbs said. "There's the whole healing process, how much can he move around, when can he start moving around. That all just kind of depends on how quickly he heals. He's already working with Darian and the guys saying, 'Here's what I think, here's my two cents.' So I think he'll be involved like he has been before. I think the frustrating thing for him is, he just won't be behind the wheel."
The accident that injured Hamlin stemmed from contact between two drivers who had feuded the week before on the Bristol short track. Logano drove four years for Gibbs before moving to Penske prior to this season, and Gibbs said his former driver was "a great teammate" over that time. Gibbs did not believe Sunday's contact by Logano was retaliation for the incident involving the same two drivers a week earlier.
"My personal take is, I think Joey was really trying to make a point," Gibbs said. "He was pushing it. He was like, 'I'm going to win this thing or else.' But at the same time ? I think when he realized Denny was hurt, it took a whole new turn. So from what I've seen, he's really hurt by that as well."
Logano, who has kept mostly silent since the incident, has exchanged text messages with Hamlin and on Thursday sent him well wishes through Twitter. "Hope he gets back to the track soon," he wrote. Hamlin, meanwhile, can only wait on his injured back to heal.
"If you ask Denny, he'd want to be back in the car right now," Gibbs said. "But when you talk to Dr. Petty and the teams we've been working with, it has to heal up properly before you can do that. As soon as we can do that, trust me, he'll want to be back in that car. He has enough wisdom to say, 'I'm going to wait until that time is here.'"
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