- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- Denny Hamlin wasn't in the mood for forgiveness Wednesday as he wore a bulky precautionary back brace during an emotional, candid interview with ESPN. But he does expect his body to do "superhuman things," and heal the compression fracture in his back quicker than the initially projected six weeks.
He said he hopes to return to competition in as soon as three weeks at Richmond International Raceway, but realizes he must stay patient for fear of further injuring his back or spinal cord. It's not up to him. It's not a pain-tolerance injury, he said. It's a "save you from yourself injury."
"Since I already have my spine broken up into two pieces, if you get in another wreck, those pieces will then shatter and get into your spinal cord and you have paralysis issues," Hamlin explained.
"That's something that I don't want to risk. It means more to me to be healthy in the long run than to go out and make sure that my season's not lost this year. I want to make sure that I'm safe when I get back, and we're going to keep fighting, and hopefully my body heals quicker than what we expect."
Hamlin said the compression fracture he suffered was like "taking a knife and slicing right through my spine," and that his spine basically fell on top of itself.
He feels fit to race right now but knows his back isn't ready. He said he wouldn't have a true indication on progress for a few weeks, after his doctors take new scans of his back and have time to study them.
This physical-versus-mental tug of war is the hardest part for him, he said.
"I ask the doctor every time I see him, every other day, 'Are you sure I can't get in the car?'" he said. "Because, at this point, I feel like I could get in my car right now at Martinsville and win the race. I really feel like I could.
"I've never had to deal with somebody driving my car. It's tough to say how I'm going feel or the reaction -- I'm sure it's not going to be good, especially knowing physically that I can do it. This is the mental toughness that I'm going to have to have for the next six weeks, to just be that supportive role and not just be selfish."
Hamlin has made great strides physically during the week he's been home. He said the pain he felt while in the hospital in California was so intense he feared it might never go away –- and that his career might be over.
At that point, he said, he couldn't go half an hour without a shot to relieve his pain. The next day he went an hour. Then two. Then three. Now, he is trying very hard to not rely on pain medication.
Hamlin also addressed the multiple on-track run-ins with former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano that ultimately resulted in a compression fracture to the L1 vertebrae in his back. He adamantly rebuffed Logano's claims that the wreck that injured Hamlin wasn't intentional.
Hamlin and Logano were racing for position on the final lap of the Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway two weeks back when they got together, sending Hamlin down the racetrack and head-on into a concrete wall.
He said NASCAR is studying his accident and the car he was driving intently, and at this time it's unknown whether the impact with the wall fractured the vertebrae or if it was possibly the recoil that resulted in the fracture.
Hamlin was also miffed by Logano's post-race comments that Hamlin got what he deserved, based on their run-in the previous week at Bristol Motor Speedway. Hamlin took it personally, noting that Logano said on his team's radio and multiple times on television that, "If it wasn't for Bristol, things would have been different."
"I'm confused," Hamlin said. "In the interview (with ESPN on Tuesday), he's saying it wasn't intentional, but three different instances (previously) he had a chance to say, 'It wasn't intentional,' and all three times he said it was. So, there's no doubt in my mind that it was intentional."
Hamlin said he's confident Logano didn't intend to hurt him and doesn't think NASCAR should fine or penalize Logano. But he did take further offense to one other comment: that NASCAR's Gen6 race cars are so safe, "I'm sure he's fine."
"That is taking for granted what we do is just, that we're superman and we can't be hurt," Hamlin said. "That's why people don't wreck each other on 200 mile-per-hour racetracks, because this is what can happen.
"You've got to think about that as a driver. You can't just throw caution to the wind. Because no one's gotten killed in 10 years, it's OK to just wreck someone at 200? It's not OK, because I have a daughter now. I'd like to do things with her when I get older.
"Don't take my health for granted just because you want to retaliate."
Hamlin seems to have taken this personally, becoming emotional.
"Well, it's personal because I'm the one who has to go through rehab three times a week. I'm the one that's got to wear this brace for six weeks or however long," he said. "He gets to go to a racetrack. I'm the one that has to deal with the repercussion from this wreck. He's going to move on, as if nothing happened, this weekend at Martinsville."
Hamlin said that from his perspective, Logano made the choice to intentionally run into Hamlin's car.
"In my opinion, there was no doubt that he intended to run into us," Hamlin said. "It was not, 'I just made a mistake,' because he kept throttling until he finally ran into us.
"I'm not going sit here and say his intent was to hurt us and take us out of our season and wreck us, but it was to ensure we were not going to win that race. He's got to deal with the repercussions of that when we race each other again."
The two drivers have no relationship to speak of right now. Logano said he hopes they can rebuild it to where it was when they were teammates. Hamlin said it's not good. He doesn't feel Logano is remorseful. Hamlin also noted that had Logano gone on to win California, he would have been the first person in Victory Lane to shake his hand and put the feud behind them.
"It wasn't, 'I'm sorry for running into you. I made a mistake,'" Hamlin said. "It was a, 'Hope you feel better. Hope you get to the track soon.' Eventually, you've got to take responsibility for your actions.
"Why do we have to keep this going? Just because he feels like he has something to prove? I don't know. But he had the two fastest cars two weekends in a row and got incidents with two different drivers two weeks in a row."