Hamlin Vows Comeback

Denny Hamlin

"I won’t be the weak link when it comes to our performance this year." (Photo: Jeff Wackerlin)

Denny Hamlin’s words are clear.

“I won’t be the weak link when it comes to our performance this year,’’ he said.

A fractured vertebra suffered early in the season and persistent back pain sabotaged Hamlin’s campaign last year, causing him to miss the Chase for the first time in his career.

Hamlin enters this season healthier. The fracture is healed and his back has been treated with anti-inflammatory injections. That treatment allowed him to strengthen his back in the gym - something he couldn’t do last season because the pain was so bad.

“Imagine just being in bad back pain and sitting on a couch and not being able to move,’’ he said.

That’s how he felt. And yet he had to race.

“It becomes tough to do your job at a high level, especially with the competition now,’’ Hamlin said. “Running (21st) at Richmond was inexcusable. I never should have been in the car at Richmond as bad as I felt.’’

Treatments, including injections in his back late in the season, helped and coincided with an improvement in performance. He scored with three top-10 finishes in the final four races, including a win at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

That late-season surge was critical for Hamlin and the team. He missed four races after his crash at Auto Club Speedway as he dueled Joey Logano for the win and couldn’t overcome that to make the Chase. He had three top-10s in his first five races back but then went 16 races without a top-10 finish.

“If we would have ended the year struggling and not won Homestead ... we would have had some big questions going into 2014 on whether it was the physical aspect keeping us from being competitive or whether it was the mental aspect,’’ said Hamlin, who finished 23rd in the points.

“Sometimes as a driver you wonder if you’ve lost it. We quickly saw that we didn’t lose it. It was more of a physical thing. Where I felt better wen ran better.’’

Hamlin said his back feels fine. He also knows that degenerative discs could cause issues. Exercise can help, though.

“Pilates have been my best friend,’’ said Hamlin, who began incorporating that into his workout two months ago. “We haven’t seen anything that is going to flair back up. As long as I continue to do what I need to do, barring another bone-jarring hit in the most ridiculous way, I think everything is going to be fine.’

That leads to the notion that when a driver is injured, they’re not always as fast afterward. Hamlin said he proved last year that wasn’t an issue, noting four poles and one victory he scored after returning.

“The moment I’m uncompetitive in the Cup series, I’m not going to be here anymore,’’ he said. “I’m not going to run 15th to 20th every single weekend.’’

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