Denny Hamlin drove the final 11 races of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season with a torn ACL in his right knee, an injury he suffered while playing basketball. Now, three weeks before the season-opening Daytona 500, Hamlin continues to recover from the surgery he had in November to repair the injury. Hamlin, who had a similar injury to his left knee in 2010, spoke to reporters recently about his rehab and other issues he and NASCAR are facing:
Q. You recently said your knee was only about 50 percent. What’s the prognosis, and is it getting better?
A. “It’s been quite a bit better. The biggest thing is the range of motion has not been very good, and it’s kind of behind. But we’re catching up to being on schedule here, and just in the last seven days, I think it’s amazing how far we’ve gotten in rehab to getting this thing better.
“I’m very confident that in two weeks it’s going to be a non-issue on track, and really for me it’s more like when can I start running again. That’s the biggest hurdle mentally that we fight through, not being able to do some of these activities that we use to kind of take racing off of our mind. Because once the racing season starts, any given Saturday I’m kind of looking for a golf course after practice is over to relax a little bit, and right now I’m not able to do any of that.”
Q. Can you compare this rehabilitation to your previous one?
A. “This one is extensively worse than the first. The best explanation that I get is that the first one I used the cadaver and I needed to get back in the race car right away. We didn’t use any parts of my hamstring or any other parts of my leg simply for recovery purposes. It would recover faster, and we didn’t think we’d have any injuries to that same leg going forward.
“But this is kind of a new latest way that they’re doing these surgeries. Obviously when players are out in football or basketball, they’re out for one year on an ACL, where we don’t have that time to recover as race car drivers. Since this has happened in the off-season, they chose to do it this way, which is a little bit longer recovery process, but it should be stronger in the long run.
“Even if I gain 1 to 2 percent more reliability with it, it was worth it to me to go through that extra rehab process to know that it’s just going to be a little bit stronger than if I would have done it the other way.”
Q. You won at Chicagoland after getting hurt last season, and also while you were injured in 2010. Teammate Kyle Busch won four of five races last season soon after he returned from his broken leg and foot at Daytona. What makes it possible for drivers to come back so quickly and with so much success?
A. “Every time something has happened with myself, it seems like the races are just raised slightly and your performance seems to be a little bit better.
“What it is, I’m not sure. I don’t know if it’s determination or what, but Kyle was another prime example of that. Another one I can think about is when Brad (Keselowski) busted his foot up a few years ago at a road course during testing, he won his first race not too long after that.
“It’s just whatever it may be that we find within us to perform at a high level, it always seems to happen when we’re injured. A lot of it probably is because we don’t want to be the weak link. We don’t want to be the one that is responsible for our team running bad, so we make sure we do all it takes to run good.”
Q. How different are you from when you raced in the Sprint Shootout for the first time 10 years ago?
A. “Different for sure. I feel like as a person I’m pretty close to the same. I like doing all the same things I liked doing 10-plus years ago when I came into the sport. Having an understanding of how our sport is run and how much more there is to it than actually driving a car is what I didn’t understand back in 2006, you know, the business side of our sport.
“I feel like I’ve come a long way as far as that’s concerned, but really I enjoy all the same things, and you know, the Denny in 2016 is very similar to the one in ’06 that came in as a rookie. It seems like it hasn’t been that long ago, but 10 years is obviously a long time in our sport, and hopefully I’m here for another 10.
Q. At Daytona, there are now SAFER barriers on all the outside and inside walls with the exception of pit road. Are you and other drivers aware of where there are still no SAFER barriers and satisfied that tracks are doing their best to install them? “Yes, it does cross our mind, and it’s something that we talk about more openly now than ever. A lot of it comes through our driver council meetings. We talk about safety, and that’s something as drivers that we like to have a large influence.
A. “NASCAR has assured us that they have a well-thought-out plan when it comes to SAFER barriers. I know that they’re putting tens of millions of dollars into SAFER barriers over the next 20 months or so. Most of that has been completed, about 60 to 70 percent of the work has already been done, and so there’s just a few places left at some of these racetracks that isn’t covered. But they all have a plan to get covered, so it’s not falling on deaf ears by any means, and I feel like part of the council has helped us get this done.”
Q. Joe Gibbs Racing has shown plenty of speed during Speedweeks the last several years leading up to the Daytona 500, but hasn’t had much success in the 500 itself. Is this year that JGR breaks through?
A. “Yeah, it seems like we’ve won just about everything under the sun when it comes to those exhibition races or the duel races or the unlimiteds, and we just haven’t won the 500. It’s coming. I mean, we know that it’s bound to happen. We’ve had a lot of guys in position to win over the last 10 years since I’ve been there.
“It’s going to happen. I don’t know when. But hopefully it’s this year, and obviously we have more teammates, we have more affiliations now with Martin Truex, so we increase our odds the more cars we put out there. It gives us an ability to lean on some of our teammates for help when we need it to push each other for a win when it really counts. I think that that’s something we struggled with in years past is not having as many cars in our organization as others and affiliations, and that definitely hurts you when it comes down to who’s going to get pushed to the win at the end.”
Q. You recently made a short appearance on “The Bachelor” and once had a cameo on “Entourage.” When you do these kinds of things, do you feel like that’s important to get NASCAR extra exposure to an audience maybe that wouldn’t otherwise be paying as much attention to the sport?
A. “It’s different because you’re not branded in your sponsor’s shirt or racing suit or anything like that. I think it’s better to have us out without that stuff to kind of get people seeing your face in something other than your driving suit or your race car. I think it is cool. Obviously there’s a great opportunity and maybe opens a few eyes here and there for people that have never seen a NASCAR race before.”