Denny Hamlin hated watching the spring race at Martinsville Speedway from his couch.
After Hamlin suffered a compression fracture of a vertebra and reinjured disks in his back in a wreck at Auto Club Speedway on March 24, he was sidelined for the next four races — including Martinsville, where his 8.2 average finish stands as his second-best track on the Sprint Cup circuit.
As severe as the pain was in his back, Hamlin said it physically “hurt” not to be able to compete at his favorite track, where he’s scored four wins, nine top-fives and 12 top-10s in 15 starts.
Hamlin exacted his revenge by winning the poles for both the Cup and truck races on Friday. He set a track record in Cup with a lap of 99.595 mph on the .526-mile circuit in the No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota — earning a career-high fifth pole for the season.
Less than an hour later, Hamlin earned his first truck pole (96.489 mph), driving the No. 51 Jordan Brand Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
“It’s the greatest Friday I’ve had in a long, long time,” Hamlin said. “It hurt to watch this race in the spring, but now it feels good to come back here and run some laps and feel as comfortable as ever. Our team has put a large emphasis on this race in particular.
“We’ve won a race every year that I’ve been in this series, and obviously this will be our best shot to get that done."
With Hamlin playing hurt this season, his greatest contribution to Joe Gibbs Racing has been as its test driver. When it became clear that Hamlin’s seven-year consecutive streak in the Chase for the Sprint Cup was ending, the organization elected to run developmental equipment on his car in an effort to help his championship-contending teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch and prepare for 2014.
"It’s tough because what my fans see is, they see the struggles, they see the blown engines and things like that we’ve had here recently, but those are all things that we signed up for when we didn’t make the Chase,” Hamlin said.
“Really, we’ve not thrown away this year, but we have really shifted our focus to coming up with an engine that works good for next year, a chassis set-up that’s going to work good and along with it, we’d like to get a little momentum with it.
“Obviously, we had a small victory in a top-10 at Charlotte. We ran top-10 the previous two or three races before that, before blown engines or what have you — running out of gas and some other challenges that we’ve had. Super tough on us, and it will make you stronger in the end and obviously, if we could get a win this weekend, by no means will it fix or make us feel good about our year, but it will definitely give us something to smile about in the offseason."
The uber-competitive Hamlin, who scored 22 wins in his first seven seasons on the Cup tour, admits this year has been “disappointing.” Hamlin has been able to rely on the advice of fellow athletes who have experienced similar back issues. But only racers can understand the drawbacks.
“For us, we rely so much on the feel that comes from our bottom,” Hamlin said.
“Basically, that’s how we find the edge in these cars and trucks, is knowing where that edge is, and obviously when you have back pains and other injuries, it takes away from your feel. It numbs things when you have to do treatments that really just take pain away. It’s also taking away from the feel that you have in your car. That’s been a challenge, and obviously, we hope that next year won’t be that way.
“We’re just fighting through it. I still feel like we turned a corner and have started to run better here in the last month or so. Even with that, everyone goes through injuries differently. Some people don’t play, some people do, but I know when I had an ACL injury in 2010 that just made my focus on what my job was even sharper because I felt like I didn’t want to be the reason that was holding our race team back.
"I feel the same way with the injury we’re dealing with now. I’m focused to make sure I’m doing everything sound like I should be."
Hamlin still hasn’t met with doctors to devise a recovery plan, nor has he decided whether to have back surgery in the offseason. With his pain subsiding of late, Hamlin said, he would prefer to “steer away from surgery if possible.”
“Obviously, I don’t want to just cover up the pain with the treatments that I’ve been doing,” Hamlin said. “That just numbs you a little bit. We still have an issue there that we have to address in the next month or so."
Certainly, Hamlin has been tested this season, but it’s made him appreciate how fortunate he is to have one of the most coveted rides in NASCAR. Still, for a driver used to running up front, it hasn’t been easy racing in the shadows.
Though Hamlin has yet to win in 2013, he believes that “one thing can spark” a turnaround with his team. And if the team performs, the accolades will follow.
“I don’t feel any type of entitlement to being a favorite,” Hamlin said. “Especially how we’ve run these last six months or so has been very tough. We’ve definitely been sort of a non-factor, I guess you could say, as far as race wins are concerned. I think for the competition or anyone from the outside to think that the 11 is going to be the favorite going into a track where we struggled to run top-10 lately would be far-fetched.
“However, I’m pretty sure and pretty confident that we’re going to be a pretty large force on Sunday."
Due to a scheduling conflict, Jeff Gordon didn’t attend Thursday’s competition meeting with NASCAR.
But well before the discussion, Gordon acknowledged he’s a big advocate of the sanctioning body’s preseason neurocognitive baseline testing that was recommended this year and could be mandatory as early as 2014 for all drivers on its national tours.
“I was really looking at it more from the concussion standpoint,” Gordon said of the topics that were brought up at the NASCAR Research and Development Center.
“Dr. (Jerry) Petty (Carolina NeuroSurgery & Spine Associates) is a good friend of mine. He’s somebody I have spent a lot of time speaking to. I see him on a weekly basis because I go to their facility for my back. It’s just a standard kind of workout that I do every week. So we are always in touch. I feel pretty confident from that standpoint.
“I probably didn’t understand that there was going to be a lot more than that discussed at that meeting. I have done a baseline test, so I feel good about that and the direction that they are going, and I agree with it.”
NASCAR will use ImPACT testing (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Test) to aid in its concussion and management program.
Clint Bowyer qualified fifth for the Goody’s 500 — but his lap was not without incident.
Got back to the bus here and my nephew just ask me. Uncle Clint…Why did u hit the wall, didn’t u see it??? ¿¿
18 — Track records in the Sprint Cup Series in 2013.
18 — Drivers beat the old track record of 98.4 mph set by Jimmie Johnson in April.
3 — Engine failures for Denny Hamlin in the last eight races in his role as test driver for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Chase.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. proved to be a team player on Friday. After he wrecked his primary car in practice, Stenhouse joined his No. 17 crew to assist with the repairs.
“When you mess it up, you have to help fix it,” said Stenhouse, who qualified 20th. “It’s not good when you don’t do that and just walk off and go right back to the trailer. That doesn’t sit too well with them, so I got out and helped fix it. I did all I knew how to do and then I let them finish it up.”