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Saturday, March 27, 2010
Hamlin names Mears as standby driver

By Angelique Chengelis
ESPN.com

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Denny Hamlin said fear of long-term disablement in his left knee motivated him to decide on reconstructive surgery sooner rather than later.

Hamlin, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in the knee in January while playing pickup basketball, had planned to wait until after the 2010 season to repair it. But since then, he has competed in five Sprint Cup races, not to mention practices and qualifying and preseason events, and has subsequently torn the meniscus as a result of what Hamlin called "a couple buckle moments" while standing.

Hamlin We were doing some further damage to the knee, and to me it's not something that's worth suffering forever or having a permanent limp or anything like that. It just didn't make much sense.

-- Denny Hamlin

He is scheduled for surgery Monday morning in Charlotte, N.C., after competing in the short-track race at Martinsville Speedway. Should rain postpone the race, Hamlin will have the surgery, which will involve a cadaver graft, on Tuesday.

"We were doing some further damage to the knee, and to me it's not something that's worth suffering forever or having a permanent limp or anything like that," Hamlin said Saturday morning in a news conference at the track. "It just didn't make much sense.

"We'll see where we're at come Phoenix. I'm at least somewhat relieved that we're just going to go ahead and get it over with because it is a little bit bothersome."

J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing for which Hamlin drives, was supportive of Hamlin's decision.

"As the season progressed, we determined that the best plan of action was to go ahead and have it repaired," Gibbs said in a statement. "Hopefully, this will take care of the situation, and he should get stronger each week."

Hamlin, expected in the preseason to be a contender for the 2010 series championship, currently is 19th in points and has not yet earned a top-10 finish through the first five races. He said his points standing did not influence his decision for surgery at this stage.

"Right now, if I was leading or if I was 30th, it would've made no difference," he said. "It's something that has to be done."

NASCAR rules require drivers to take the green flag to earn championship points in a race, so a driver can start the race but is not required to finish for those points.

Hamlin said veteran Cup driver Casey Mears will be his standby driver.

How Mears will be used -- if he will be needed -- is unclear. Hamlin, who said he will be on crutches when he arrives at Phoenix, said his plan is to start every race.

"As long as they can just pry me in that seat, they'll have a tough time prying me out," he said, laughing. "Right now, [Dr. Patrick Connor] says that I'll be able to get in the car at Phoenix -- there's no doubt that I'll be able to get in it. It's just tolerance of pain is what's going to be the limiting factor. I'm not going to do any further damage to it once it's done. It's going to be strictly pain-limited."

Hamlin did not rule out the scenario of starting a race, racing until the first caution and then turning over the car to Mears.

"It's a possibility," Hamlin said. "It's not what we want, by any means."

In terms of his racing, Hamlin uses his left foot to brake. At Phoenix, he said he will have to use his right foot.

"Which changes things quite a bit," he said. "I'll try doing things just like I normally do to see what limits me at that point. Whether the best thing to do is let him [Mears] practice, qualify ... I don't know what the best option is."

If surgery goes as scheduled Monday, Hamlin will be 12 days into recovery when practice begins at Phoenix. Rehab will begin two days after surgery.

Hamlin said since the initial injury, he has not taken any medication. NASCAR has a drug policy that involves testing drivers before the start of the season and then randomly throughout the year.

"I didn't want to have anything that I was going to get used to so I decided to not even go there in the first place," Hamlin said.

Connor, with OrthoCarolina and a team physician for the Carolina Panthers, is performing the surgery.

Angelique Chengelis covers NASCAR for ESPN.com.