Hamlin out 6 weeks with fractured vertebra

Denny Hamlin will be sidelined at least six weeks because of a

fractured vertebra sustained in a last-lap crash at California.

Hamlin was evaluated Tuesday by Dr. Jerry Petty of Carolina

Neurosurgery and Spine Associates. While it was determined Hamlin

won’t need surgery, the L1 compression fracture in his lower back

needs time to heal.

”Dr. Petty will make the determination when Hamlin will be able

to return to racing this season,” Joe Gibbs Racing said in a

statement.

While there was no official word from Hamlin in the statement,

he tweeted: ”I wish I got good news today.. I didn’t.”

Hamlin has made 264 consecutive Sprint Cup Series starts, 13th

most among active drivers. He raced two weeks after undergoing knee

surgery during an off week in 2010, and completed the race at

Phoenix without a replacement driver despite obvious pain.

If he heals according to Petty’s estimated timeline, he’d only

miss five races because NASCAR is off this weekend. But among the

next five are stops at Martinsville and Richmond, where the

Virginia-raised driver has a combined six wins. He also hosts and

competes in an annual charity race at RIR.

Joe Gibbs Racing said no decision has been made on a replacement

for Hamlin, who is 10th in the Sprint Cup Series standings. But the

team has former Cup regulars Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers in

its stable in the Nationwide Series, and both will likely get seat

time in the No. 11 Toyota.

Vickers is scheduled to drive the Sprint Cup race at

Martinsville for Michael Waltrip Racing.

Hamlin was injured when his car hit head-on into an interior

wall at Auto Club Speedway after contact with Joey Logano.

Hamlin and Logano have been feuding over the last month, and

neither wanted to give an inch as they raced side-by-side on the

last lap for the win. Both cars ended up wrecking after the

contact.

NASCAR ruled that neither driver was trying to intentionally

wreck the other during the battle, and no penalties were issued

Tuesday. NASCAR chairman Brian France said earlier Tuesday that

while Hamlin’s injury was unfortunate, the battle for the win was

the kind of throwback racing he expects out of the drivers.

”I have said repeatedly, every minute, that contact, especially

late in the race when you are going for a win, that’s not only

going to happen – that’s expected,” France said in a telephone

interview with The Associated Press. ”Both of them did exactly

what I think you would do when you really, really want to win.

Getting some contact, trying to race extra hard to win the race,

that’s what we’re about.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the last championship-level driver to sit

out, missing two races last season in the middle of the Chase for

the Sprint Cup because of concussions. Vickers missed more than

half of the 2010 season because of blood clots.

Sterling Marlin, who led the points for 25 weeks in 2002, missed

the final seven races of the season with a fractured vertebra in

his neck.

The time out of the car could cost Hamlin a spot in the

12-driver Chase field. He has made the Chase every year since

entering the Cup Series in 2006.

Although he’s 10th in points, he’ll fall after missing

Martinsville. The top 10 in standings after the 26th race earn a

spot in the Chase, and the two winningest drivers not already

eligible get the final two berths.

Hamlin does not have a win this season.