We all know the four most important words in racing, according to D.W. and Larry Mac, are, “Gentlemen start your engines!”
As the race is about to begin, everyone is standing and usually there is a celebrity in the flag stand who has been given the honor of waving the green flag to begin of the race. But if you’re a driver in the Sprint Cup Series, “Gentlemen start your engines” has a far more reaching meaning.
NASCAR’s rules are simple when it comes to a driver starting a race. If a driver doesn’t take the green flag to begin the race then he isn’t awarded any points once the checkered flag waves. Now, that is not to say that a driver has to be in the car at the end of the race to receive the points. All it means is that a driver has to be in the car at the start of the race to be the one awarded the points even if he doesn’t finish behind the wheel.
There are always cases in the Sprint Cup Series where a driver starts the race but because of an illness or injury is not able to complete the race. Few drivers make it through their career without having to call on a relief driver at some point.
One such scenario may be about to play out, as Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin went in for surgery Tuesday to repair a torn ACL. Hamlin, who finished first in the Sprint Cup race at Martinsville on Monday, injured his knee before the start of the season playing basketball and originally had planned to put the surgery off until after the season. He and team officials thought that he could handle the demands of racing without doing any further damage but apparently that hasn’t been the case as Hamlin said since his injury there has been some damage to his meniscus.
Normally the recovery period for an athlete to recover from ACL surgery is a minimum of eight months before he can return to his sport. With the point system being the way it is, Hamlin can ill afford to sit out even one race if he wants to entertain any thoughts of making the Chase after the first 26 races of the season.
Entering the Martinsville race, Hamlin was in 15th place, only 13 points from cracking the top-12 that is the cutoff line for making the Chase. A Cup race winner is awarded 185 points for his trip to victory lane so it becomes easy to see how just sitting out one race would really put Hamlin’s chances of making it into the Chase in jeopardy. Of course, Hamlin has to think of his future and I’m sure that his future includes two healthy knees, but at the same time I’m sure that same crystal ball that he is looking into also has him in the battle to knock Jimmie Johnson off his throne at the end of this season.
Joe Gibbs Racing has come up with a game plan that may ensure that Hamlin will have the opportunity to go after the title during the final 10 races of the season. There is no race scheduled for Easter weekend which will give JGR a little more time to put Hamlin in the best position to keep earning points while rehabbing his surgically repaired knee.
According to the rulebook, any qualified Cup driver can practice and qualify a car for a race, the only penalty being that if another driver starts the car in the race that he has to drop back to the rear of the field for the start. There is no way at this time to really put a timetable on how much pain Hamlin will be able to tolerate once he gets to Phoenix, but JGR already has Casey Mears standing by in case he is needed to practice, qualify or even drive the car in the race.
The most anticipated scenario has Mears handing the bulk of practice and maybe qualifying until Hamlin can get back in the car, but it is hard to imagine that Hamlin would not be in the car on race day to at least start the event. Usually in those cases, the injured driver stays in the car until the first pit stop, with the hope of catching an early caution so that, as is the case at most tracks, a driver change can be made without going a lap.
What before Monday had been a tough start to the new season for Hamlin is about to get even tougher, but this is usually the kind of spot where JGR shows just how strong of an organization it is. It will not be easy, but you have to think that somehow Hamlin will be there fighting for the title
Subway Fresh Fit 600 (k) Track:
Phoenix International Raceway (1-mile, Turns 1&2 banked 11 degrees, Turns 3&4 – 9) Date:
April 10, 7:45 p.m. TV:
MRN Defending Champion: