Denny Hamlin and teammate Matt Kenseth: both all but knoocked out of this year's championship playoffs, and it's only April (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Denny Hamlin will have to wait a little longer before renewing his friendship with Joey Logano out on the track.
His doctors have nixed a comeback here this weekend at his home track. And Hamlin, injured in a crash at California a month ago, isn't optimistic about how all this is going.
"If this goes past Darlington (Mother's Day weekend), then I don't know what the chances of us making the chase are," Hamlin said Thursday after his latest medical checkup on that injured back.
"Even if we were to race this weekend, or race next weekend (at Talladega), or the one after, I don't know the chances.
"There are a lot of good teams you have to beat to guarantee you're going to win the races.
"Obviously if it goes past Darlington (and he doesn't get clearance until Charlotte the end of May), our chances are crushed even harder."
What that means, of course, is that this year is history. He might as well take time off, have some surgery, vacation in Hawaii.
Mentally this is not wearing well.
"Eventually you have to have a shut-down point -- of not going out there and racing for nothing," Hamlin says dejectedly.
"I think a recovery on the kind of surgery that I would like to have is about a month-and-a-half or so. I could potentially come back maybe for the tail end of the year.
"It wouldn't be a season-ending (surgery).
"Eventually you have to know the point at which you’re looking at improbabilities of making the chase and just being smart about it."
With that, and a nod at heavy NASCAR penalties on title rivals Brad Keselowski, Logano and now teammate Matt Kenseth, Hamlin cracked "If everyone keeps getting these penalties, I'm going to be the points leader soon."
First Hamlin's injury, then Kenseth's penalties. "It's been a tough start to the season," Hamlin concedes, "even though the team as a whole has four wins."
That's two by Kenseth, at Las Vegas and Kansas, two by Kyle Busch at California and Texas.
"It's been a tough four wins for Joe Gibbs Racing -- We've got to get some momentum back. It seems like every time we get momentum it gets taken away.
"You have to fight through these things."
The doctors rate pain from 1 to 10. "I believe every day I live with about a seven," Hamlin says. "A 10 is where you are on bed rest.
"I deal with it every day. The part that bothers me is it does affect my daily life. I can't lift the baby in or out of the crib because I can't lean over.
"I'm so limited on what I can do because of back issues.
"I just want to get that part over with.
"I'm willing to take the risk to get better and take the time off to get better, because I feel mentally it will put me in a better place."
Hamlin had pointed at this Saturday night race, the Richmond 400, for his comeback, optimistically.
"Honestly I know everyone is trying to protect me from myself, but I would have raced at Martinsville," Hamlin says.
"Doctors understand risks more than they used to; it (when to return to racing) used to be off driver feel.... and it's not that anymore -- with concussions and everything else."
Hamlin got a full exam Tuesday, and Wednesday his doctors talked with him about the situation.
"They were speaking as much Chinese as I could understand," Hamlin joked. "I saw the scan, and saw the healing that they were talking about.
"However some kind of implant is not healing the way that they wanted it; and that's what they wanted, in order to clear me.
"My injury is very, very hard (to assess) because there is no exact science to the risk. They don't know, no one knows, what the risk will be if I race this week or if I race two weeks from now.
"Bone healing is completely subjective. It takes bone healing a year most times to be 100 percent.
"So how do you quantify how much more risk there is this week versus two weeks down the road, or three weeks, or two months?
"Everyone is erring on the cautious side, because no one wants to be responsible and have their name on the line of clearing a driver and then he goes out and gets hurt."
Then there is this weird twist: doctors apparently are comfortable with Hamlin starting the Talladega race next week and running a few laps and then turning the car over to a substitute driver to finish the race.
Like there's never been a first lap crash in NASCAR?
"They all came to the conclusion they were happy with me starting Talladega and getting out when it's a safe time to get out," Hamlin says.
"We even talked about doing that here at Richmond; but it's unfair to the team for me to get out and then go three or four laps down on pit road and know the team's not going to finish any better than 35th.
"We'll start our process at Talladega and then rescan (the back) again and try to go to Darlington.
"As far as I know, when we get to Darlington we'll be full-time and doing the whole race weekend."
Hamlin has endured back issues for at least a year, and the California crash apparently just exacerbated the issue.
"We talked briefly," Hamlin said. "That was not the main focus of our conversation, But I think it is going to be a possibility in the off-season.
"If I get back to it (racing) in a timely fashion in the Cup series this year, and I am still able to salvage some kind of season, then obviously it's not going to be an option until the off-season.
"Either way, I'd like to get it fixed and get it over with."
Denny Hamlin, at California in March (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)