Denny Hamlin's hopes of returning to NASCAR competition this weekend have been dashed, after the team of doctors treating him decided against giving him the all-clear following the spinal compression fracture he sustained last month at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had been hopeful of getting a clean bill of health from the doctors and being allowed to resume racing at this weekend's Toyota Owners 400 Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway, Virginia. But after a day spent consulting with his medical team and seeking a consensus on the current state of his recovery, Hamlin ended up disappointed.
"Unfortunately I won't be racing this weekend at Richmond," he revealed on Twitter on Wednesday evening. "It kills me to not be in the car for my team and sponsors but after long discussions with the doctors we have decided to wait on my return back to racing.
"Thanks to all of my fans who have sent encouraging messages over the last month," he added. "I'll be back in no time."
Hamlin was told to expect a six week lay-off from NASCAR competition after injuring his lower back in a heavy wreck at Fontana following contact with Joey Logano on the final lap of the race. With no race the following weekend at Easter, he's since missed the Cup races at Martinsville, Texas and Kansas, and he'll now miss a fourth this weekend where he will once again be deputised in the #20 car by JGR's Nationwide Series driver Brian Vickers.
The final word on Hamlin's condition went to Dr Jerry Petty of Carolina Neurosurgery and Spine Associates, who is NASCAR's main consultant on driver health when it comes to back and head injuries. Other experts consulted included Dr Terry Trammell, who is the chief orthopaedic consultant to the IZOD IndyCar Series.
At Kansas last weekend, Hamlin had estimated his chance of turning out at Richmond as 50-50, but new scans of his L-1 vertebra showed that the healing process was not sufficiently far enough along for the doctors to feel happy with him getting back in a race car.
"I really would like to be in the car. If I'm not, we'll just change our outlook for when the doctor says I'm ready," he'd said in advance of today's decision. "It's just a balance in figuring out what the doctors are comfortable with. What are your odds of something catastrophic [occurring in a follow-up accident.]"
It's now questionable whether Hamlin will even be back the following week at Talladega Superspeedway, a high speed circuit which would be especially problematic if there were to be a big wreck as so often occurs there.
Before the news that he was still ruled out for Richmond, there had been discussion that Hamlin might only start the race and then hand over the #20 car to a backup driver - a solution that would still reap him any Cup points that the car went on to win, but which would mean he was not exposed to any undue risk.
Hamlin's continued absence from the grid means that he's already dropped to 26th place in the championship standings, making his chances of making this year's Chase play-offs look somewhat remote. He's even 42 points outside the top 20, in which he would need to finish to be eligible for a 'most wins' wild card slot - although Hamlin has yet to clinch even one win so far in 2013.
Given that his championship campaign hopes look very remote to say the least, Hamlin is even starting to consider whether it wouldn't be a better move to write off the whole of the rest of 2013 and attend to other medical concerns in the meantime since he's sidelined anyway.
Even before the current injury, Hamlin had been suffered from bulging discs in his back that can flare up and leave him in pain, a condition that the 32-year-old said was genetic as his father also suffered from it. The Fontana crash exacerbated the situation, which Hamlin had already been eyeing surgery over the offseason for. Now the question is whether he should move that up and have it done sooner rather than later.
“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 on Wednesday.
“We have to be smart about this. It is just one season and, hopefully, there are many more to come. I'm just trying to do the right thing for my team and sponsors because I feel like they need me," he added.
All in all it was a Black Wednesday for the Joe Gibbs Racing team, since as well as news about Hamlin's continued absence from the driver line-up they were also rocked by heavy penalties on Matt Kenseth and his crew chief as a result of a rules infraction relating to a component of the Toyota engine. (See separate story