Denny Hamlin's chances of making this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship took a big hit when he crashed hard into the wall during Sunday's race at Kentucky Speedway.
Hamlin's wreck at Kentucky came three months after he suffered a compression fracture in his lower back during a last-lap accident in the March 24 event at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had to sit out four races -- Martinsville, Texas, Kansas and Richmond. He made his return at Talladega, completing 25 laps there before handing the car over to relief driver Brian Vickers, who finished the race in 34th.
After a thorough examination in the infield medical care center at Kentucky, Hamlin described to reporters his impact into the wall, saying he got his "bell rung." He complained of a headache but said his back felt good.
Hamlin experienced a cut tire early in the race but rebounded quickly and was running among the top 10 just past the halfway point when another tire blew, sending him into the wall.
How hard was his hit?
"It was very similar to Kansas of last year during the test day of the (fall) race weekend," Hamlin said. "You are picking up a lot of speed off of (turn) 4 here (Kentucky). For me, it didn't go down slowly like the tire did the first time. This one just blew out solid and quick. When I lost steering, I hit flat. I would rather hit head-on anywhere than flat up against the wall on these walls."
On Monday, Hamlin was medically cleared to drive before he participated in a test session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The series will be running at Daytona International Speedway later this week.
Sitting 25th in the point standings with nine races to go before the Chase begins, Hamlin's hopes of making the playoffs for the eighth consecutive time are slim to none. He is currently 104 points behind 20th-place Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and 150 in back of Joey Logano.
The 12-driver field for the Chase will include the top 10 in points after the Sept. 7 race at Richmond as well as two wild cards. The wild cards will be awarded to those drivers ranked between 11th and 20th in points who have the most wins. Right now, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart hold the spots with one victory each.
Hamlin finished second at Darlington and fourth at Charlotte in May, but since then he has placed 23rd or lower in three of four races. He finished a season- worst 35th at Kentucky. Hamlin is now a longshot to make the Chase, but he's not ready to throw in the towel just yet.
"Definitely have to proceed on," he said. "(Kentucky) was the best performance for us in a while. Hopefully at least something to build off of even though we don't have a good finish."
If Hamlin soon reaches the point where making the Chase is no longer possible, then he might consider exiting the car for the remainder of the season in order to fully heal from his back injury. He might need surgery on it later in the year. When the series came to Richmond the last week in April, Hamlin addressed the issue of having surgery.
"I think that it is going to be a possibility in the offseason," he said. "If I get back to (racing) in a timely fashion in the Cup Series this year and I'm able to salvage some kind of season, then, obviously, it's not going to be an option until the offseason. So, either way, I'd like to get it fixed and get it over with."
He also noted, "Eventually you have to know the point at which you're looking at improbabilities of making the Chase and just being smart about it."
Hamlin's JGR teammate, Matt Kenseth, all but locked up his spot in the Chase after scoring his series-leading fourth victory of the season at Kentucky. Kyle Busch looks to be in good shape to make the playoffs, as he holds the eighth position in points and has two wins this year.
Team owner Joe Gibbs has no plans of sitting Hamlin out at any point during the remainder of the season.
"I don't see any reason," Gibbs said. "I think Denny wants to stay after it, and we have a chance to get some wins for (team sponsor) FedEx. And who knows what's going to happen. We could get hot. I know he'll be the favorite at several of these racetracks we have down the stretch over these next nine weeks. Who knows, maybe a miracle in there. And you can't have a great comeback unless you're behind, so we'll just go after it and do the best we can."
For now, Hamlin will soldier on with hopes of pulling off that miracle.