When Denny Hamlin returned to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series after recovering from a spinal column injury, he admitted that there was some hesitation in getting back behind the wheel of a stock car.
Hamlin is less than five months removed from a compression fracture in his spinal column, the result of an accident in which his car made contact with Joey Logano’s car, spun counterclockwise, then hit the inside wall of Auto Club Speedway during the Auto Club 400 in March in Fontana, Calif.
“There was some apprehension, and you’re thinking about reinjuring yourself or maybe doing some further damage,” said Hamlin, who drives the No. 11 FedEx Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
“I feel comfortable now, but for me, I just want to be back to being as competitive as we were earlier this season and even last season.”
While crashes and sometimes injuries are part and parcel of auto racing — including Hamlin’s, which sidelined him for four races — the NASCAR chatter in the last week has centered around Tony Stewart.
Stewart, one of NASCAR’s marquee personalities and the owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, will miss the Pure Michigan 400 on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway after he sustained a broken right leg Aug. 5 in a sprint car race in Iowa.
Stewart-Haas racing announced Monday that Austin Dillon will drive the No. 14 Chevrolet in place of Stewart this weekend; Dillon finished 11th in the Quicken Loans 400 and was 20th in the Alliance Truck Parts 250 in June at MIS.
“I’m very confident at Michigan, and it’s one of my favorite tracks,” said Dillon, who leads the Nationwide points standings and plans to drive in both Saturday’s Nationwide race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, and Sunday’s Sprint Cup race. “We ran well in the Cup race [in June] and I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s a place we can go out and have a good run this weekend.”
It was the third time in a month Stewart was involved in a sprint car accident — Stewart flipped his car multiple times in a race July 29 at Oshweken Speedway in southern Ontario, less than two weeks after he was part of a pileup July 16 at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park, an accident in which Alysha Ruggles, a 19-year-old driver, suffered a compression fracture in her back.
USA Today counted eight accidents involving sprint cars — small, open-wheel winged or nonwinged cars with engines between 700 and 900 horsepower — and dirt-track racing.
In June at MIS, Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and ARCA drivers mourned the death of Jason Leffler, a former NASCAR driver and friend of Stewart’s who was killed in June during a sprint car race in New Jersey. An autopsy by the Delaware County (Pa.) Medical Examiner determined Leffler died from a blunt-force neck injury; a New Jersey State Police investigation determined the sprint car Leffler drove hit a wall after the steering locked up.
Less than 18 hours after Stewart’s injury, which required two surgeries, Juan Pablo Montoya didn’t question safety of Sprint Cup cars.
“I think what Tony is going to go through is pretty bad. After what happened to Leffler earlier in the year, everybody was like, ‘Ooh, do we want to keep racing sprint cars and stuff?’ ” Montoya said last week.
“I'll tell you, NASCAR really does a very good job for safety. The truck standards, the car standards are so much better today. I've been here for seven years, and seven years ago it was good, and nowadays with the new cars, the cars are really, really safe.”
Montoya touched on Stewart’s passion for racing and his goal of driving in as many competitive races as he could during the course of the year. It’s a goal that comes with risks.
“I talk to Tony sometimes, and this year he was so excited he was going to go over 100 races in a year,” Montoya said. “It's like for him, making 100 races in a year was a big deal. And you don’t see the dangers. You don’t think it’s dangerous, but there’s always a risk factor. It's racing. There’s nothing you can do.”