Denny Hamlin's 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship campaign hangs in the balance this week after it was confirmed that he'd sustained a serious lower back injury in the hard hit he took at the and of the Auto Club 400 race at Fontana on Sunday afternoon.
"Hamlin suffered a L1 compression fracture following an accident on the final lap," his team Joe Gibbs Racing confirmed in a statement released early on Monday. "Hamlin hopes to be released today to fly to his home in North Carolina where he will be evaluated by Dr. Jerry Petty of Carolina Neurosurgery & Spine Associates later this week."
Hamlin himself tweeted from his hospital bed in California on Monday morning, stating that "I just want to go home." He was finally released shortly before 8pm in the evening, walking without assistance but wearing a back brace under his clothes to stop him from bending or twisting, and having noticeable difficulties with his breathing.
As he left the hospital, Hamlin told USA Today
that he'd felt a 'pop' in his back during the crash and been unable to breath while seated in the car immediately afterwards, which is why he had felt the need to climb out. "When I felt a pop, I couldn't move at all and I knew I had to get flat to my back to be able to breathe again. That's why I rushed out and just laid flat on the ground to start breathing," he said.
JGR subsequently released an update on Tuesday stating that Hamlin would not require surgery for the injury, but would be sidelined for at least six weeks. The driver hasn't missed an event in 264 Cup starts, ever since the end of the end of the 2005 season.
Any prolonged absence from racing would almost certainly doom Hamlin's chances of making it into the end-of-season Chase play-offs for the Cup championship, as he is currently only in tenth position in the points standings after five races.
Back injuries are at the top of every motor racing driver's list of worries, since they can force a driver out of the race seat for weeks or even months while they heal as further impacts to an existing injury can exacerbate the situation and lead to far more serious spinal problems, something that Hamlin was keenly aware of as he left hospital. "I don't want to make it worse," he said. "It's not worth that."
British driver Justin Wilson missed the second half of the IndyCar Series season in 2011 after sustaining a compression fracture in his fifth thoracic vertebra during a practice session, and was forced to wear a back brace for several months while the injury healed. He was out of racing for nearly six months as a result.
Other notable recent back injuries have happened to Will Power (at Sonoma in 2009) and Anthony Davidson (at Le Mans in 2012), both of whom suffered more extensive spinal fractures and were immobilised in bed for several weeks afterwards, which does not appear to be the case with Hamlin. A closer equivalence might be the L1 injury sustained by IndyCar's Dario Franchitti in a motorbike accident in 2003, but that itself also ended up requiring surgery which put Franchitti out of racing for nine months in total.