When it comes to drivers playing with pain, the recent standard unquestionably belongs to Denny Hamlin. It's still difficult to believe what he did three years ago at Phoenix International Raceway, where 10 days after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery Hamlin gritted his teeth through an entire event on a bone-rattler of a 1-mile track. The car fell out of contention with electrical problems and a relief driver was on standby, but Hamlin never got out.
One week later at Texas, he won. He would go on to win eight times that season, seven of them coming after surgery to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and nearly interrupt Jimmie Johnson's run of consecutive championships. Viewed in its full context, it was a downright epic feat, even if he came up short of the title. It's very easy to look back on that situation now as Hamlin begins the road back from another injury, this one, a fractured vertebra suffered in a crash last week.
Unfortunately, though, the two episodes aren't exactly comparable. As he showed that night in Arizona, Hamlin is one tough hombre, and if this current issue were simply one of pain tolerance, he'd be back in the car next week at Martinsville.
Clearly, it's not.
The compression fracture in his L1 vertebra will require at least six weeks to heal -- which means Hamlin will miss five races -- and greatly compromises his chances of contending for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup this season.
Of course, all that is secondary to Hamlin's heath. We won't know for several weeks if he'll actually be able to meet that hoped-for return date of May 11 at Darlington, and we won't know until he slides back behind the wheel how any lingering effects of the injury will impact his ability to compete. Everyone is hoping for the best -- that Hamlin comes back at Darlington and shows as fine a form as he exhibited at Auto Club Speedway before he hit the wall. But until he actually does it, we just won't know, and a full recovery is first and foremost on his mind.
All that said, this is a championship-level driver for whom the goal is the same every year, and when Hamlin recovers, he'll certainly have one eye on what it might take to continue his perfect record of never missing a Chase in seven full-time seasons. On Thursday, Joe Gibbs Racing team president J.D. Gibbs sounded optimistic. "Some of our guys have kind of looked at it," he said, "and I think they're encouraged that there's still a possibility." Thanks to the Wild Card system, there just may be.
By sitting out five races, Hamlin will forgo 215 points, a whopping amount that certainly precludes him from making the Chase based on the standings. To be eligible for one of two Wild Card entries, he'll have to make the top 20, a more digestible but still arduous undertaking given the time he'll miss in the car. Right now Hamlin stands 10th, 24 points ahead of 20th-place Ryan Newman. Assuming he can win races, that cutoff line is all that matters. All of his prospective gains and losses need to be viewed not relative to the top of the standings, but to the driver sittin in that 20th-place spot.
Over the past two years, we've seen drivers make charges from deep in the standings to secure a Wild Card berth -- Jeff Gordon made up 12 positions over the final 15 regular-season events to claim a Chase spot last year and Brad Keselowski gained 15 in 16 weeks to do the same in 2011. Hamlin's quest, though, shapes up as more difficult than that, and it's tough to set a clear target right now, given we don't know exactly how many spots he'll have to make up in the 16 starts he could have between his return and the fall Richmond race, where the championship field is finalized.
History, however, does offer a clue. In the two years under the current simplified points system, the 20th-place drivers after the fall Richmond race have been in similar positions. Jamie McMurray had 640 total points at that time last year, Marcos Ambrose 673 the season before. Average those out, and it rounds up to 657 -- as good a number as any for Hamlin to aim for if he hopes to keep his streak of consecutive Chase appearances alive.
At present, Hamlin has 145 points. That means, should he return at Darlington, he'll need to make up in the neighborhood of 512 points over his final 16 regular-season starts. Averaging that out provides an idea of how many points Hamlin would need to make up per race, and the number is a sobering one -- 32. In a system where one position gained on the track equals one point, he's essentially going to need an unblemished streak of top-10 finishes to turn this miracle scenario into a reality.
That's asking a lot, particularly of a driver who may still be banged up when he gets back in the car. But Hamlin has two advantages, the first being the teams he'll be competing against for that 20th position are outfits that in no way compare to his No. 11 program. He won't be racing Johnson and Keselowski, but perhaps Casey Mears, McMurray, Ambrose or Jeff Burton if those teams don't turn things around. Assuming Hamlin is back to his old self, he should zoom through the field like Keselowski did after starting in the back at Fontana.
His second advantage lies in the truth that Hamlin is the most overlooked great driver in NASCAR, a top-five talent who doesn't often get all the credit he deserves, perhaps because he's never won a championship. To this point, only two drivers have made every Chase over the course of their full-time careers -- one of them is a five-time champion -- and the other currently has a fractured bone in his back. At his best, Hamlin is as explosive as any competitor in the sport. To give himself a chance, he's going to need a stretch like the 10 straight finishes of 12th or better he amassed in 2010, and from a talent perspective, he's certainly capable of it.
But everything has to go right. That means no engine blowups, no master switch failures, no cut tires, no big wrecks at Daytona. The margin here isn't thin -- it's translucent. If it happens, it would be one of the greatest accomplishments in modern NASCAR history. It's also exceedingly unlikely given the odds and how much is outside of Hamlin's control.
Then again, this is a driver who competed a full race with a surgically-repaired knee, who clawed his way out of short-track obscurity, who nearly wound up welding trailer hitches for a living, whose big career break was a one-shot Nationwide race on the same Darlington track where he'll try to return next month. Long odds are nothing Denny Hamlin hasn't defied before.
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