DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor.
And in Denny Hamlin’s case, discretion means getting out of the race car and sitting out the rest of the season.
As I type these words, I’m sitting in the press box at Daytona International Speedway, some 50 feet above the race track. I can look toward Turn 4 and see the mark on the wall where Hamlin’s Toyota slammed nose-first into the SAFER barrier short of the start/finish line.
If the wreck was a jarring impact for Hamlin, it was like a punch in the gut for those of us who watched it happen. The angle of the collision reminded us of the wreck he suffered at Fontana, Calif., in late March, the wreck that kept him out of action with a broken back for more than a month.
Hamlin is a valiant warrior. We all remember 2010, when he came back from knee surgery in record time and damn near won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. When he said he still hoped to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup this year after missing four races because of a fractured vertebra, we took him seriously.
But now, after two high-speed accidents in Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, it’s time for Hamlin to realize that chasing the Chase is nothing more than a fool’s errand. It’s time for Hamlin to realize that distancing himself from racing and its potential hazards may well be the best medicine in the short term.
I don’t say this lightly. And I don’t presume to offer a medical opinion. I know how difficult it is for a driver — any driver — to give up a ride, even temporarily. The image of Dale Earnhardt trying to drive with a broken collarbone and a dislocated sternum in the 1996 Brickyard 400, only to exit the car with tears in his eyes six laps into the race, is etched indelibly in our collective memory.
Enough is enough. Hamlin has crashed out of three of the last six races, taking shots that made us cringe. He took a hard hit June 30 at Kentucky, arrived at the infield care center hunched over on a golf cart and had to be cleared medically before testing at Indianapolis the following day.
A blown tire led to a hard impact June 2 at Dover, and though Hamlin finished on the lead lap June 23 at Sonoma, he slammed into the Turn 10 tire barriers in practice and got knocked off course when Tony Stewart wheel-hopped into Turn 4 in the race itself.
There may be a message here, and Hamlin might do well to heed it. During his four-race hiatus in April, Hamlin told us that the Fontana wreck had aggravated a chronic problem with bulging discs and that those were more painful than the compression fracture itself.
Hamlin added that he would contemplate surgery for the bulging discs, if and when his Chase hopes were lost.
“I’m at the point now where if they don’t let me back in the car in a timely fashion, where I’m going to be racing for nothing for the rest of the year, I’d just as soon do it now and get it over with and come back next year strong and ready to go,” Hamlin said during a promotional visit to a Washington, D.C., hair salon in April.
It’s time for Hamlin to revisit that state of mind. The Chase is a long shot. To get there, Hamlin, currently 26th in the standings, would have to win two of the next eight races, leap-frog over six drivers in the standings and make up a 122-point deficit to 20th-place Paul Menard just to be eligible for the Chase as a wild card.
If the pain in Hamlin’s back has abated, and surgery isn’t warranted, then rest might be the best prescription. Hamlin, 32, can enjoy a long and productive future in Sprint Cup racing. Why risk it?
Hamlin already has earned his red badge of courage. He’s an intense, talented competitor with nothing to prove. This year, he also has nothing to win. So why not take the rest of the season off and return to racing next year renewed and rejuvenated.
Though it’s antithetical to an athlete’s makeup, sometimes the greatest wisdom is knowing when to quit, and the most courageous decision is not to compete when the risks outweigh the potential rewards.