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CUP: Hamlin Faces Hard Decisions

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Although hard decisions about Denny Hamlin’s immediate future as a NASCAR driver won’t be made until later this week at the earliest, it’s clear that the injury he suffered in a wicked crash at the end of Sunday’s Sprint Cup race is a significant hurdle in his career.

Hamlin flew home to North Carolina Monday after being released from a Fontana, Calif. area hospital. He was diagnosed with a compression fracture of the lower back, the sort of injury that usually demands a long recovery or surgery – sometimes both.

After being released from the hospital Monday, Hamlin told reporters he felt a “pop in his back” after the last-lap crash with Joey Logano. Hamlin and Logano were racing for the win when their cars touched. Logano hit the outside wall and continued on the track, but Hamlin’s car took a hard left turn and slammed into the inside wall – at a spot where there was no SAFER barrier for added protection.

Hamlin said he had difficulty breathing after the accident and could breathe well Monday only when he kept his body in a straight line.

Hamlin will be examined this week by Dr. Jerry Petty, a Charlotte neurosurgeon who has worked with many injured NASCAR drivers. Then a decision will be made for treatment – apparently either surgery or a back brace.

Hamlin is 10th in Sprint Cup points five races into the season. Missing a race would seriously damage his chances of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup, although he could qualify for one of the two wild-card spots by winning races and finishing in the top 20 in points.

In theory, depending on the extent of his injury, Hamlin could start every race and be replaced by a substitute driver, a move that would put the driver points in his total.

If Hamlin is sidelined for a while, Elliott Sadler, who drives for JGR’s Nationwide operation and has extensive Cup experience, would seem to be a logical replacement.

After the accident but before he knew of Hamlin’s condition, Logano said of Hamlin: “That’s what he gets.” Hamlin bumped Logano and caused a crash two weeks ago at Bristol, intensifying a feud between the two drivers.

Logano, who also engaged in a post-race scuffle with Tony Stewart after Sunday’s race, immediately became a target of racing website forum criticism. He was defended by team owner Roger Penske.

“Joey had no idea what the situation was with Denny when he was doing the interview,” Penske told the Associated Press. “It’s one of those things that came out and taken out of context isn’t what he meant. He can’t take it back, but people are certainly blowing that up to mean something different than what he knew at the time.”

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.