Denny Hamlin feels “nearly 100 percent” recovered after fracturing a vertebra on March 24 at Auto Club Speedway. And starting from the pole for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 is possibly the best medicine the Joe Gibbs Racing driver could ask for as he continues the recovery process.
So how will Hamlin know he’s all the way back?
"I think winning would do that,” Hamlin said. “I think ultimately getting the big trophy on Sunday is the validation that you're truly back. For me, it's going to take some wins and some really good consistency throughout these summer months to put ourselves in position to have a chance at a championship. That's what we're here for.
“Even these small victories, though, give me that confidence that I'm still capable, and I'm still able to do the job at 100 percent like I should be. Any kind of confidence booster for me — it's always a plus on Sunday."
Hamlin started the race at Talladega and was relieved by Brian Vickers after just 25 laps. He then tackled Darlington — the “Track too Tough to Tame” — and posted an impressive second-place finish to his teammate and winner Matt Kenseth. His first top-five showing since Hamlin posted a third-place finish in the second race of the season at Phoenix elevated the driver from 31st to 27th in the point standings.
However, the next challenge will be battling through the next seven positions — along with winning a race or two — in order to earn one of the wild-card positions in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Certainly, qualifying for one of the top 10 positions is still mathematically possible, but not likely.
Still, Hamlin hasn’t missed a Chase since he started racing full-time in the Cup Series at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2006. He and Jimmie Johnson are the only drivers to contend for the title in every year they’ve been eligible.
Although Hamlin is in catch-up mode, he’s not feeling the pressure yet. He has an excuse — not earning driver points — if he misses the Chase. On the flip side, there would be a sense of pride in forging one of the most hard-fought comebacks in NASCAR history.
“We have a great opportunity to make a great story if we make it and can be competitive in the Chase,” Hamlin said. “If we don’t, we had a hill that we just couldn’t climb and we’ll be tougher because of it.”
Plus, Hamlin has the resources at JGR to persevere. In the first 11 races of the season, Gibbs’ cars have won five times. Hamlin says there is “constant competition” due to the caliber of his teammates — Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, who joined the organization this season. When Busch moved to JGR from Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, it elevated Hamlin’s “game to a different level.”
“He took me from being a one- to two-win guy a season to five, six,” Hamlin said. “A lot of it at this racetrack, Kyle Busch is why I perform so well here over the last two to three years. Not that he’s spending all this time with me, but I’m studying the things he does as a race-car driver because he’s good here.
“If the tools are out here for me to use, I have to be smart enough to use them to my advantage. And Matt is just another Kyle Busch on our race team, and I don’t want to be the last guy. We constantly text each other all the time about who is the last guy on our team — and that’s good competition. We’re going continue to push each other to not to be the last guy and eventually, we’ll just be one-two-three and the last guy won’t be too bad.”
Hamlin’s doctors are impressed with the progress on his back. He has no MRI scans scheduled in the next few weeks. Currently, Hamlin’s recovery routine includes "just changing up my workouts and doing different things and continuing to work on my twisting ability and things like that.” But Hamlin doesn’t feel “limited in any way in any kind of activity” in or out of the car.
Despite the scheduled 600 miles of racing from day into night on Sunday, Hamlin actually believes the task will be easier on him than the demanding tight turns of Darlington.
“Darlington is way tougher physically,” Hamlin said. “It’s always a real hot race because the air doesn’t escape and everyone is running right up against the wall. You usually beat the right side in so you’re taking carbon dioxide in for most of the race, so it’s a tough race physically and mentally for that long (500 miles) at that track.
“Here, you’ve got some straightaway to kind of breathe for a second, gather your thoughts. … I think now my muscle memory is back to where it was before, so I think I’ll be less sore this time around than I was for Darlington. It took about two days after Darlington before I felt good again. Everything should be fine by Monday here.”
Everything will be even better if Hamlin has the Coca-Cola 600 trophy to keep him company.
DIALING IT IN
Veteran crew chief and current BK Racing director of competition Mike Ford has moved back onto the pit box for Travis Kvapil and the No. 93 Burger King Toyota. Ford worked with Bill Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola before joining BKR in December. He’s spent most of his time at the shop streamlining the systems at BKR.
Initially, Ford was expected to join the team for Darlington and Charlotte to assess the situation and help crew chief Todd Anderson. But Anderson parted ways with the company after Darlington — just a couple of weeks after general manager Harry McMullen was let go.
“I wanted to get a better understanding of what we needed to work on,” Ford said. “Now that I know what we need, I need to go back to the shop and get to work on it. In the last couple of weeks, we found out what we needed.”
One of Ford’s challenges is the company’s in-house engine department. The organization is working with Joey Arrington out of Evernham Motorsports’ former engine shop.
Although Ford doesn’t have a deadline for his replacement, he would like to find a crew chief “sooner than later.”
Danica Patrick and Trevor Bayne changed engines on Saturday and will start from the rear of the field for the Coca-Cola 600.
Patrick’s car was leaking oil after morning practice. Bayne broke a crankshaft in Happy Hour, but engine builder Doug Yates had no further concerns with the other 12 Fords in the field.
At approximately the same time as Bayne’s failure, Jeff Burton radioed to the crew, “It’s pouring oil out.” Burton’s issues were with the oil cooler, and the team replaced the radiator before the end of practice and he returned to the track.
“Everything looks good,” said Earnhardt Childress engine builder Richie Gilmore. “With the EFI (electronic fuel injection), you can see what’s going on. The oil pressure dropped down, but it was never a point of concern. Getting back on the track gives you a better feeling entering a 600-mile race.”
Wood Brothers Racing will celebrate its 1,400th Sprint Cup start on Sunday.
For Eddie Wood, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the team, qualifying for that number of races over the past six decades is “a big deal.”
“If you stay here long enough to make 1,400 starts, that’s an even bigger deal,” Woods said. “It’s hard to stay here that long.”
The venerable No. 21 Ford has run 106 Cup starts at the current Charlotte Motor Speedway alone. Of the Wood Brothers’ six victories on the 1.5-mile track, Eddie’s favorite was the 1987 Coca-Cola 600 win with Kyle Petty in the No. 21 Citgo Ford.
“It was just fun,” Woods said. “We were pretty much doing all of the car building and built our own engines back then. We ran well all week. We finished sixth in the All-Star race and then finished the last run with a set of tires from the All-Star race because the car performed better on scuffs.”
Petty took the lead from Rusty Wallace with 17 laps remaining in the race for the Wood Brothers' 94th Cup win.