Denny Hamlin is the latest exhibit. Saturday’s race at Richmond International Raceway will mark the fourth consecutive that the Joe Gibbs Racing driver will miss after suffering a compression fracture in his back when Joey Logano sent his No. 11 Toyota headfirst into the wall at a March 24 race at California’s Auto Club Speedway.
The contact came during the last lap, when Logano threw a block that some viewed as within the bounds of good, hard racing. Others saw it as a reckless rebuttal to Hamlin’s block one week earlier at Bristol, which caused Logano to spin out.
Regardless, Hamlin’s back injury has drawn attention to the tricky issue of payback in motorsports. When racing at 200 mph, where exactly is the line between acceptable and unacceptable retribution?
“It’s a hard line to really find,” concedes Hamlin, 32, of Chesterfield, Va. “As athletes, we’re nearly barbarians in our outlook, in the sense that when we feel we’ve been done wrong, our immediate reaction is to get that guy back. But ultimately, in our sport, the risk for injury is a little more. . . . All you have to battle back with is your racecar, which is tough on the race teams [who have to repair the damage] and, sometimes, the drivers. It’s a different ballgame.”
It’s rare for NASCAR drivers to miss races because of injury. Despite near-weekly on-track scuffles and spectacular multi-car pileups, stock-car racers are pros at playing hurt — whether that means driving with a broken hand or ribs, postponing corrective surgery or, for much of the sport’s history, dismissing likely concussions as “getting one’s bell rung.” That tough-nosed approach is partly a result of the imperative to collect points toward qualifying for NASCAR’s season-ending 10-race championship competition. And it’s partly a testament to strides NASCAR has made in making its tracks and the racecars safer.
The latter is a particular point of pride at Joe Gibbs Racing, which hadn’t had a driver miss a NASCAR race because of injury for 22 years before Hamlin fractured his L1 vertebra in the wreck at California, aggravating a pre-existing bulging disk lower in his spine in the process.
Nonetheless, Hamlin insists he could tolerate the pain that would ensue during a 400-lap race Saturday at Richmond. The problem, in the view of his doctors, is the damage that another wreck could do to a vertebra that hasn’t healed sufficiently.
In a sense, helping Hamlin decide when to return to racing is familiar terrain for Gibbs, the Hall of Fame former coach of the Washington Redskins.
“There are two things you have to consider,” Gibbs said in a telephone interview. “One is, how does the athlete feel? I always told our football players: ‘I don’t want you out there unless you’re 100 percent. It’s a contact sport, and you’ve got to really want it and be champing at the bit. If you’re not, hold off because somebody else is probably going to do a better job than you.’ ”