Only through an exceptional set of circumstances will Denny Hamlin keep his perfect record of making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup intact, given that a spinal compression fracture is expected to sideline the Joe Gibbs Racing driver for at least six weeks.
In a last-lap crash in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Fontana, Calif., Hamlin suffered the fracture of his L1 (first lumbar) vertebra, the uppermost in the lumbar section of the spine. Because of heavy post-race traffic, Hamlin was airlifted to Loma Linda Medical Center (near San Bernardino) from the race track and spent Sunday night there.
Released from the hospital Monday evening, Hamlin flew home to Charlotte and was evaluated Tuesday by neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, according to a statement released Tuesday night by JGR.
“Dr. Petty determined that Hamlin will not require surgery, but will need time to properly heal, which is estimated around six weeks time,” the statement read. “Dr. Petty will make the determination when Hamlin will be able to return to racing this season.”
The absence will put Hamlin’s prospects of qualifying for the Chase in serious jeopardy. The only Cup rookie ever to qualify for the Chase (2006), Hamlin has been part of NASCAR’s playoff in each of his seven full seasons in the series.
No replacement has been named to drive Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota Camry, but one logical candidate would be Elliott Sadler, who drives the No. 11 Nationwide Series Camry for JGR and who has three victories in 430 starts in the Cup series.
Hamlin and Joey Logano were racing for the win on the final lap when contact between Logano’s No. 22 Ford and Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota drove Logano into the outside wall and Hamlin nose-first into the inside concrete wall near the entrance to pit road. The impact lifted all four wheels of Hamlin’s car off the pavement.
With his back immobilized, Hamlin was flown to the hospital by helicopter.
If Hamlin is out for six weeks, he will miss five races. That almost certainly will prevent him from making the top 10 in the standings on points. Conceivably, Hamlin could qualify as a wild card by winning multiple races after he returns, but to do so, he would have to finish the first 26 races between 11th and 20th, inclusive, in the standings.
That’s a tall order, but not impossible. Mark Martin missed nine of the first 26 races last year while running a limited schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing and nevertheless was 26th in points at the Chase cutoff.
Sunday’s wreck was the second incident involving Hamlin and Logano in as many weeks. At Bristol seven days earlier, Hamlin had bumped and spun Logano’s car into the wall, but NASCAR Sprint Cup Series director John Darby didn’t view the last-lap accident at Fontana as payback.
“Probably the simple fact that it was the last lap of the race and the last time they were both going to see Turns 3 and 4,” Darby explained in a teleconference with reporters on Tuesday. “They were side?by?side.
“And everything that great competitors do — if somebody was of the mind?set to retaliate, they probably would have been lined up nose to tail to start with, and somebody would have drove into the other car and spun them around. But in this case, that is so far from the opposite that it never even crossed anybody’s mind that I’m aware of that paid attention to the race, that that was part of it.”