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Hamlin suffers spinal compression fracture

26 March 2013

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.

Every back injury is different and there is hope that Hamlin's case won't end up requiring surgery down the road or involve a more extensive lay-off than six weeks. However, the 32-year-old does have a long history of back problems, last year suffering from back spasms resulting from what he described as "bulging disks" that required careful management through rehabilitation, injections, strength-building exercises and cutting back on possible trigger activities such as golf and basketball. Hamlin has said he feels the condition might be genetic, as his father suffers from the same problems.

For the time being, rest and recuperation are on the agenda for Hamlin once he gets home before anything is decided about his return to racing. He'll need to be cleared for competition by Dr Jerry Petty before he's allowed to get back into a race car, and part of that will need him to be off any pain medications first.

"We're kind of leaving the analyzing for him [Dr. Petty] on what to do either surgery-wise or just stick with a brace and let it heal itself," Hamlin said, not sounding optimistic about a quick return. "Either way, obviously, both of them take a lot of time."

JGR said that it is not planning on making any immediate announcements regarding contingency plans about who might be in line to fill the #11 race seat. NASCAR takes a week off this weekend for Easter before the next scheduled event on April 7 at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, giving the team extra time to decide.

The team's Nationwide Series driver Elliott Sadler could get called up to fill in for Hamlin for any short-term absence at Martinsville Speedway; JGR's other Nationwide competitor Brian Vickers is already lined up to run in the Cup race there with Michael Waltrip Racing, but he could still be an option to fill in for Hamlin in subsequent races.

The accident in which Hamlin was injured happened when he and Joey Logano were competing for the race win out of the final corner of the two-mile Auto Club Speedway. Running on the low-side, Logano was unable to hold the tight line and drifted up unto Hamlin putting them both into the wall. Hamlin then rebounded and hit the inside wall nose-on at high speed in an impact that lifted the car clear off the ground, which is what appears to have done the actual damage to the driver.

Hamen said he'd heard from almost every fellow NASCAR driver while in the hospital - except for Logano, whom he clearly felt wrecked him deliberately. "At the end, I think he saw I was going to win and he wasn't going to let that happen," he said.

Logano himself gave his first comments to the media since learning of Hamlin's injury, in which he expressed regret about Hamlin's condition while once again denying he'd intentionally sought to wreck his rival regardless of the recent building animosity between the two former team mates.

"You don't ever want anyone to get hurt; you don't ever want anything to happen, especially to Denny. We were racing really hard there at the end of the race," he said on Monday. "The last thing I wanted to hear last night was that he was in the hospital. We're hoping for a speedy recovery and hoping that he's out there racing at Martinsville.

"We raced each other hard, we pushed each other up the racetrack and there were no intentions of wrecking each other," he continued. "You want to rub each other a little bit, and that's part of the race," he said, adding that it was just bad luck that Hamlin had gone on to hit nose-first at an unprotected part of the inside wall lacking SAFER impact-reduction technology.

NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp confirmed that the accident would be reviewed to see if there needed to be changes made to Auto Club Speedway in light of what happened. Track president Gillian Zucker said that there had not been any previous recommendations from NASCAR to implement SAFER barrier technology along the part of the inside wall where Hamlin hit on Sunday.

"When [SAFER] barriers first came we certainly didn't put them all around the facility, then NASCAR made recommendations and we added more here and more here," she told ESPN.com on Monday.

The cost of SAFER barrier technology is said to be $500 per square foot, with Fontana spending an estimated $6 million to introduce the system to the entirety of the outside wall. The system also has a relatively short lifespan compared with concrete walls, and needs regular upgrades and replacements to maintain its effectiveness all of which adds to the ongoing operating expense.

However, its effectiveness in preventing serious injuries has been proven on an almost weekly basis in US oval racing, and exceptional cases such as Hamlin's only underline the consequences of not having SAFER barriers everywhere they're needed.

"Anytime that NASCAR makes any recommendation that they feel will reduce injuries or the threat to injuries, we will always implement that," confirmed Zucker.

"I'm sure when we go back there will be one there," said Hamlin on Monday evening. "It's just unfortunate it takes wrecks like here and what we saw at Watkins Glen for them to kind of reconfigure these tracks where they need to be safety-wise."


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