DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When a driver misses part of a NASCAR Sprint Cup season due to injury or illness, when the next year rolls around and he’s healthy, he has one of two things to prove:
First, he intends to prove he’s back in competitive form and hopes to win races.
Second, he’s determined to show he’s fit as a fiddle and can withstand the physical rigors of racing.
Let’s be honest. The returning driver counts BOTH as his season goals. Can’t achieve one without the other.
Much has been said and speculated about Tony Stewart’s return to competition after he suffered a shattered right leg in a Sprint Car race midway through last season.
Now consider Denny Hamlin, driver of Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
In 2013 Hamlin was 10th in points and measured up for the Chase for the Sprint Cup when he crashed at Auto Club Speedway in March. Hamlin suffered a compression fracture in his back.
If you have ever experienced back pain, you know a bit of what Hamlin was enduring.
Hamlin missed four races and fell to 28th in points. His hopes of making the Chase were over.
He had to take on a relief driver in his first race since his injury, at Talladega.
But the following week at Darlington he drove the entire race and finished second. Hamlin wasn’t fully cured but he was strong enough to race – if not as comfortably as he would have liked.
Hamlin won his only race of 2013 at the season’s last race at Homestead-Miami.
He ended the year on a very high note.
And he’s started 2014 on another high note. Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited on Feb. 15. He was No. 1 in NASCAR’s first on-track competition of the year.
“It was great to win,” Hamlin said. “And it’s good for the drivers who are part of the Unlimited to get the race rust off.
“We only do superspeedway racing four to five times a year so it is an art form of racing that the more you do it the better you’ll become at it.
“So I think it is a big advantage for us in the Unlimited being able to get a race under our belts before the 500, which is our biggest race. It’s hard to go into the 500 cold turkey with no race experience the week before.”
With his 28th-place finish in points last year, compared to second for teammate Matt Kenseth and fourth for Kyle Busch, it would appear to be easy to call the driver from Chesterfield, Va., the “weak link” at Gibbs.
Hamlin thinks that would be wrong.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “At least not through the testing that I’ve seen. I’m up to speed, to say the least, within our race team.”
Hamlin does admit he might have a difficult go of it early in the season – and for reasons you might not ever suspect.
“Last year we were a little bit off of our teammates and we’re going to have a little bit of a struggle at the beginning of the year,” Hamlin said. “That’s because ultimately we have a bad parking spot in the garage and we’re going to miss the first 10 minutes of practice every week.
“Yes, you’re still going to be parked in the garage. Not the haulers, but the cars. We were so far back in points we would miss the first 10 minutes of practice every single week.
“So, until we get ourselves back up in points where we should be I think the first few races will be tough for us. Other than that I think we’ll be fine.
“I think we’re going to start as strong as JGR starts.”
Hamlin, who has won 23 races in his career – all with Gibbs – said he took something positive away from his experience last year. Namely, a driver just can’t rely on being competitive every season. Anything can happen.
“Last season was a dead one in a lot of ways,” Hamlin said. “What I take from it the most would be just the appreciation of when you do run well.
“I took for granted just making the Chase every single year and winning multiple races every year. Just like it was easy and I really didn’t have to prepare for it. I just showed up and we did it.
“And now, I think with the competition and how we ran at the end of last year, you’ve got to think about preparing for more weeks and preparing to be good. You can’t just rely on talent to do it.”
Asked if Stewart faced tougher challenges than he in 2014, Hamlin laughingly said:
“I think Tony has less challenges because he’s more talented.”
Of course, that is a matter of opinion.
—- Hamlin continued to make it very clear he’s fully returned – and is no Gibbs “weak link” – with his victory in a Budweiser Duel qualifying race on Feb. 20. Hamlin took the lead after pit stops midway through the 60-lap race and was never challenged. Impressively, he has now won two of two races at Daytona.