This past weekend at Kentucky, crew chief Jason Ratcliff made the call to take two tires which put Matt Kenseth out front for a late race restart. Their call put Jimmie Johnson who had dominated the race up to that point in a vulnerable position starting on the inside which ended with him spinning out and losing all of his track position. One of the big debates coming out of Kentucky involved chase hopeful Denny Hamlin who was forced to endure yet another rough day at the track. With Hamlin getting his bell rung again, arguments ensued whether or not Denny should opt out of the rest of the season or continue racing. Here’s my take…
This isn’t as simple as a yes or no answer. After returning from his back injury, many prepared to watch the No.11 storm through the field, win five races and make the chase in an unbelievable display of tenacity and raw talent by a driver on a mission. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen anything close to that. His first two races back were very promising as Denny ripped off finishes of 2nd and 4th in two of the most grueling and physical races on the schedule but since then, he’s lost a lot of ground. He hit hard at Dover after winning the pole and leading 41 laps relegating him to a disappointing 34th place finish. The very next weekend, Hamlin finished 8th at Pocono but actually lost ground on 20th causing a large contingent of people who had previously thought he would make the chase to alter their opinions.
In the following three races, he finished no higher than 23rd failing to lead a single lap and losing a tremendous amount of ground points wise. After an early race tire failure that put Hamlin a lap down at Kentucky, he fought valiantly as he muscled his way back through the pack but it was all for not as he would endure a vicious impact with the turn 4 wall while running 6th later in the race. He was visibly in pain after the wreck and complained about a headache….but his back was fine. Indianapolis doctors checked him for a concussion Monday and he was thankfully okay; just had the wind knocked out of him. Denny Hamlin sits 25th in points and there is no way he’s making the chase this year and the chances to get the No.11 into the owner’s chase look grim as well. Nonetheless, he refuses to step out of the car and the racing community is split on whether or no that’s the right decision.
Sure, there’s the possibility of injuring himself further and he’s no longer racing for a championship so why take the chance but it would do more harm than good to sit out the rest of the year. Doctors say he’s okay to race and he has escaped two big wrecks since his return nearly unscathed so I don’t believe that he’s putting himself in any unnecessary danger by racing…at least no more than the other 42 brave men and woman out there. He can’t let what might happen stop him from racing unless there is factual evidence that he is putting himself in too much danger which doctors say he is not. It would be detrimental to his 2014 campaign if he were to sit out the remainder of the season over fear of injury when professionals say he’s at no greater risk than any of his fellow competitors.
In fact, his team can use this unfortunate set of circumstances to their advantage. With no championship on the line and already buried deep in the standings, they can experiment and basically test for 2014 so they can bolster their program and come back next year ahead of the game. With a different driver, they can’t really gather data as accurately as they could with Denny behind the wheel seeing that there is a great disparity between every driver’s style of driving, the setups they like and each has a different way of giving feedback. Did you notice how they have struggled a bit after not having Denny in the car for just four races? Make that 19 races, a two month off-season and watch how lost they are when we show up to Daytona next February. Having a new driver takes focus away from the car which makes the season Matt Kenseth is having after joining JGR that much more impressive.
Then there is that intangible little thing in racing we like to call momentum. You can’t see it or touch it but you can certainly feel it. If they end this year with a couple wins and confidence in their program, they will be pumped up and excited to take on 2014. With a little pep in their step, the team will work harder, everyone will be more energetic and a positive attitude goes a long way in this business. Without Denny, they will go into 2014 with a million unknowns and concerns which will hinder their efforts on the track and cause unneeded aggravation. Also, I’m sure Hamlin would be pretty bummed out for lack of a better term if he had to watch someone else drive and maybe even win in his car for the next four months. They’d basically be prolonging a disastrous 2013 and carrying it over into 2014.
In the end, Hamlin feels he can race and that’s all that really matters. He doesn’t have the strongest back now but we’ve already seen it hold up against a couple significant impacts since his return to action. The No.11 team is behind right now performance wise and the only way they will gain on it is if they have Denny in the car. In the end, Hamlin sticking around will pay major dividends for the No.11 team next year but he will have to persevere through what’s already been a rough 2013 first. The next race is Daytona which I’m sure conjures up some feelings of trepidation in the 11 camp considering how blistering fast cars go there and how viciously they usually wreck but he will be fine and they know it. They wouldn’t let him race if they thought otherwise. Personally, I believe we will see that team get stronger and stronger as the season goes on and we will witness the resurgence of Denny Hamlin next year as he emerges as a championship threat once again.