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Is Denny Hamlin's back ... back?


Is Denny Hamlin’s back back? That is Question One in the Joe Gibbs Racing camp as the 2014 Sprint Cup season begins. The potent Toyota team, with one of the sport’s strongest lineups (Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Hamlin), remains in search of its first Cup championship carrying Toyota colors, and a healthy Hamlin can be a big player in that quest.

After a convincing win in Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race it looks like all systems go.  

The 2013 season was more or less a lost year for Hamlin. After he suffered a compression fracture in his back in a brutal crash with Joey Logano as they raced for the win in the season’s fifth race, at Fontana, Calif., Hamlin sat out four weeks, essentially losing hope of running for his elusive first championship and falling into a sort of test-driver status for his teammates as they pursued the title.

Hamlin wrestled with back issues much of the year, climbing out of the car in pain after practice at Richmond and enduring painkiller injections in his spine in search of relief. He chose rehabilitation over surgery in hopes of making his return easier and faster.

As 2014 rolls out, the good news is that Hamlin capped 2013 by winning the season’s final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway and is one-for-one in Daytona. Although the former victory was overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson’s rush to yet another championship, the win reinforced Hamlin’s status as a top driver and, importantly, kept alive his streak of winning at least one Cup race per season since his full-time debut in 2006.

It was an exclamation point on a tough year.

“You just look at the small victories,” Hamlin says. “That’s all I could do — take pride in the small victories that we had here and there.

“Now everyone is starting over clean again in 2014. For me, when you come back after missing four or five races (and have) one or two bad finishes — my Chase hopes are over. You’re kind of racing for nothing, really. It’s hard to find the motivation to perform at 100 percent when you’re trying to find yourself, trying to figure out what feel you need, really when you feel like you’re not racing for anything.”

Hamlin says his back began responding more positively in early September, just as the schedule was moving into its Chase segment.

“Right around when the Chase started, I went in for some treatment (and) got an injection that numbed the pain,” he says. “That really allowed me to get back in the gym, get back to doing rehab again. That was the point for me where I started to get better inside the car.

“Richmond was probably the worst that I felt of any weekend. When you can’t go through a corner, you can’t feel the race car because you’re getting lightning bolts of pain through your back.”

Hamlin’s car was a lightning bolt in the Unlimited, a race in which he led the most laps and won all three segments.

“I realized after the win in Homestead, how I was feeling, that we run as good as I feel,” Hamlin said. “When I feel comfortable in the car, especially in long runs and everything, I can do just about anything I need to do to be a race winner.”

If Speedweeks will tell the tale of his recovery, the story so far is shaping up to be a healthy one.

By Mike Hembree
Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikehembree
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.