MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Denny Hamlin thinks that he might have come back too soon from an injury -- and he’s glad he did.
The driver for Joe Gibbs Racing missed only four races after sustaining a compression fracture of a vertebra in his lower back in a last-lap accident at California on March 24.
The perennial series championship contender rushed back hoping to defy the odds, qualify for the NASCAR’s 10-race playoffs and make a run at the championship that has eluded him in his career.
Instead, after a hope-fueling return that included second- and fourth-place finishes in his second and third starts, Hamlin’s luck essentially ran out. He didn’t make the Chase, and has struggled mightily.
Might it have been better to give up on the year when he got hurt and focus on his health?
"Maybe," he said Friday at Martinsville Speedway, where Hamlin has won four times in his career, and where he led the way as 18 drivers broke Johnson’s track qualifying record. Hamlin’s fast lap came at 99.595 mph. He later also won the pole for the Saturday’s Truck Series race, where he’ll be seeking his third consecutive victory in that event, with a lap at 96.489 mph."
The Virginia driver will start Sunday’s race 24th in the points, and with just one top-10 finish in his last 18 races. It’s not the kind of success he’s accustomed to, and it’s been good to experience, he said, because it has forced him, through steady exposure, to come to accept that he’s not always going to be great.
It’s a lesson he realizes now he needed to learn.
"That was kind of the fault I had in 2010 in the championship and even previous years," he said, speaking of the season he came the closest to the title, finishing second. "One bad race and I would just kind of freak out and it would linger on and on and one with me for weeks. Now, not that I’m immune to bad finishes, but you just try to find the little positive now versus thinking about the negatives."
Hamlin hopes to find a whole bunch more positives in the last four races.
He’s won at least one race in every season since he became a full-time driver in 2006, but hasn’t visited Victory Lane yet this year. And then he’ll take the time in the offseason to assess his health options. There are three procedures that could help his back heal, and he’s not sure what he’ll do.
He insists his back is feeling ever better, but looks forward to simply having a chance to rest.
But first, there’s more racing to do, and while Hamlin’s team has been focusing on research and development to come back strong next season, there’s that winning streak that he’d like to preserve.
"If we could get a win this weekend, by no means will it fix or make us feel good about our year, but it will definitely give us something to smile about in the offseason," he said.
And for those that say he’s almost forgotten like an also-ran this year?
He likes being counted out, too, especially with the 0.526-mile oval awaiting Sunday.