PHOENIX — After wrecking at 204 mph in practice last Thursday, Denny Hamlin was a tad gun-shy taking the turns at Kansas Speedway the rest of the week. The reason would surprise non-NASCAR folk.
“It’s hard to come back as a driver, especially on a high-speed race track. It’s hard to come back to being 100 percent, going into that corner at the same speed and not being worried about wrecking again,” Hamlin said in a stop at his winter home in Phoenix on Monday.
“For me, I don’t care about myself or my head or life and limb. It’s about, ‘Hey this is the last car we have on the weekend. We have to preserve this car.’ That was the biggest challenge for us.”
Hamlin finished 13th at Kansas and stands in third place, 20 points behind Brad Keselowski, as the Chase to the Sprint Cup enters its final four races at the half-mile oval at Martinsville, Va., on Sunday.
Hamlin was behind the wheel in Kansas three days after being diagnosed with a slight concussion suffered during a practice run. The severity of the hit was intensified by the new surface at Kansas, which drivers called one of the slickest in the series.
“Any hit at Kansas now is going to be a big one because of the speeds and the grip level. You either have grip or you don’t,” Hamlin said.
“It’s just been very, very tough to come back from that, because that was our best car. That was the car we had dominated New Hampshire with. It was the best car in our stable. That one is now done. It won’t see a race track ever again. … We have to build four cars these last four races. We have to do whatever it takes to win a championship.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has missed the last two races after being diagnosed with a concussion Oct. 10. He was involved in a crash during testing Kansas Speedway on Aug. 29 and was involved in another collision on the last lap at the Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 7. Earnhardt underwent more tests Monday.
Hamlin was encouraged to be tested after the accident by track officials Thursday, saying afterward that he might have not done it on his own. He appreciated the concern.
“Obviously this weekend, they monitored a little bit more than they had in the past because of the speed and the impact — they were extra cautious. They don’t want to go through this big concussion thing in NASCAR. Ultimately they don’t want Dale Juniors and Jimmy Johnsons dumping out of races because of these injuries. They need these star drivers to be in the race,” he said.
Concussions are a point of emphasis in several major sports these days, especially in the NFL.
“With some of the stories of ex-NFL players and athletes from other sports coming out and saying what concussions have done to their lives and how it has affected them, I think that everyone is starting to see that there is more to it than just playing the game and playing hurt. It’s about your well-being past your times of playing” and driving, Hamlin said.
Hamlin said that while it took him about a day to clear his head, by race day he was fine.
“I didn’t feel 100 percent, honestly, that whole day (Thursday). It took about an hour for me to get my sense back and realize, ‘I know what I’m doing. I’m safe to drive.’ The next day is when I felt 100 percent. I wasn’t sore. I wasn’t banged up,” he said.
“It didn’t have any effect on how we ran. We just kind of ran crappy and had terrible strategy. It was just one of those races you look to get past and figure out what you can do to be better.”
Martinvsville Speedway might be just the place for Hamlin to rebound. It has been his best track. He knows what it takes to win there, having won four times at the track in his career. He swept the two races in 2010 after winning one each in 2008 and 2009.
Mechanical issues discovered after the race hampered his first run there this season.
”My technique works at that race track. And so I’m going to do my best to make sure I am 100 percent focused when I get there,” he said.
“I know what it takes to have a good car there. The compromise of rolling the center versus getting off the corner. It’s a compromise, so you need to figure out what it takes. Obviously, four wins, it’s taught us how to win races there. There is no more important race that we need to win than this one coming up.”
Hamlin, who has finished second, third and fifth in the Sprint Cup standings, also has won twice at Texas Motor Speedway and once in Phoenix. Those races set up the climactic final race in Homestead, Fla. Jimmie Johnson is between Hamlin and Keselowski, trailing the leader by seven points.
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Hamlin said his task is simple.
“We have to win this race if we want to be part of this championship battle,” Hamlin said of Martinsville.
”We’ve got a good resume, but resumes don’t buy you championships. We’ve got to perform. We’ve been steady, but steady doesn’t win championships. Actually, steady would be good for us. We’d like to be steady. We’re kind of like the stock market — we’re up and down, up and down.
“We have to flat-line these top four races. We have to finish in the top five in every one, no question about it. We need to win at least one race to close that gap. If we can do that, I feel confident by the time we get here, we’ll have a shot to once again be a part of the championship battle.”