Denny Hamlin has found the perfect way to rehab his surgicallyrepaired knee _ winning NASCAR races.
Hamlin became the first driver in 17 years to sweep the SprintCup and Nationwide events at Darlington Raceway, an achievementeven more remarkable since he was on the operating table on March31 to fix a painful ACL tear in his left knee.
Still, less than two weeks later, Hamlin was back in his No. 11Toyota and barely missing a shift. Hamlin says the racing helpswith the knee’s recovery.
“It really is like a physical therapy session inthere,” Hamlin said of the driver’s cockpit. “Withthe car, you have a little bit of vibration right there on thesteering column. I kind of rest my leg against it.”
Plus, at Darlington, Hamlin added a couple of therapeuticwinner’s burnouts.
Hamlin out-raced JGR teammate Kyle Busch to take the RoyalPurple 200 on Friday night. At Saturday’s Southern 500, Hamlinmoved to the front late in the race and held on while primecontenders Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton made pit errors to fallback.
It’s been a quicker than expected recovery for an injurythat may keep athletes in stick-and-ball sports off the field formonths.
Hamlin injured his ligament playing basketball. After winning atMartinsville on March 29, Hamlin knew he couldn’t drive withoutsurgery. After the procedure, many at Joe Gibbs Racing held theirbreath about the season ahead _ especially when Hamlin insistedjumping back in when the series went to Phoenix.
“We didn’t know if he was going to make it the wholerace, maybe half a race, what was he going to do,” JGR teampresident J.D. Gibbs said. “I think he went up a few notchesin my eyes (with) the mental toughness.”
Hamlin’s shown that the past month.
Hamlin followed a gritty, 30th-place finish in Arizona with arousing win at Texas a week later.
Any lingering doubts about his condition were put to rest atDarlington.
He led 111 of 147 laps in the Nationwide event, roaring ahead ofBusch over the final five laps to capture his second series winthis year. Hamlin said after the victory that he took steps toconserve his energy with a grueling, 500-miler ahead.
Hamlin again led the most laps in the Southern 500 _ 104 out of367 laps _ and was again up front when it mattered most.
He outpaced pole-sitter Jamie McMurray in second, Kurt Busch inthird and Jeff Gordon in fourth.
Series points leader Kevin Harvick extended his margin with asixth-place finish, while Jimmie Johnson got caught up in twowrecks and didn’t finish.
Hamlin’s gumption wasn’t a revelation to JGR, even ifhis three victories the past six races are.
“I’m personally surprised that we’re running asstrong as we are,” Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford,said.
Hamlin was asked what his ironman effort at Phoenix showed abouthimself and, at first begged off an answer. When pressed, Hamlinsaid it showed his character and desire to work with his team.
“The easy way would have been to get out of the car, sitthere, watch someone else go through hell the rest of the race witha car that was dinged up,” Hamlin said.
“There’s been many times my guys have gone over andbeyond for me in certain situations and stuck up for me,”Hamlin continued. “I felt like it was important for me to stepup and do the same for them.”
While Ford appreciates the sentiment, he understands there’smore at work with a competitor like Hamlin.
“Heck, knowing Denny, I knew he would never even thinkabout getting out of the car,” Ford said. “We just kindof rolled with it.”
Now, Hamlin may be headed to the biggest roll of his life.
Hamlin entered the season a trendy pick to unseat four-timeNASCAR champion Johnson. However, the injury and a slow startseemed to send those hopes into the wall.
Hamlin, though, says everything’s improving _ his knee, histeam and his drive for NASCAR success.
There may be a downside for Hamlin, though.
“For the record,” J.D. Gibbs told his driver,”‘If you ever break your ankle, wrist, I don’t want tohear it. You’re driving the car.’ So we got thatsettled.”