Scott Fowler

Could Denny Hamlin win NASCAR’s championship with torn ACL?

Denny Hamlin is driving in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series with a trn ACL he suffered playing basketball. He says the injury won’t prevent him from competing for the Chase title, or from playing basketball again after surgery.
Denny Hamlin is driving in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series with a trn ACL he suffered playing basketball. He says the injury won’t prevent him from competing for the Chase title, or from playing basketball again after surgery. AP

If you have ever harbored the mistaken impression that race car drivers aren’t as tough as 10-year-old beef jerky – and a little crazy, too – check out what Denny Hamlin is doing.

Hamlin is racing – and racing well – with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He is among the final dozen drivers in NASCAR’s Chase and has as good a chance as anyone to win this year’s Sprint Cup series championship.

That injured right leg is the one that presses the gas pedal. And yet Hamlin has every intention of flooring it once again Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Bank of America 500.

“My knee is good,” Hamlin said this week. “Walking around is fine. Just when I’m in a hurry and try to run somewhere, it doesn’t work.”

When he drives somewhere in a hurry, though, it does work. Aided by one of the sport’s best pit crews, Hamlin won NASCAR’s all-star race in May at Charlotte, before his injury. And less than two weeks after he tore his ACL, he won the first race Chase playoff race of the year, at Chicagoland.

Hamlin is Michael Jordan’s favorite driver. The two have become friends in Charlotte, where Hamlin is a steady courtside presence at Hornets games. Jordan texted Hamlin with a pep talk from Monte Carlo recently, according to the driver, and MJ was Hamlin’s guest and cheered him on at the season-ending race in Homestead, Fla., last season. Hamlin made it to the final four in 2014 but lost to Kevin Harvick in the finale.

Hamlin has finished in NASCAR’s season-ending top 10 in seven of the past eight seasons, but he has never won an overall championship. If Hamlin pulls off the 2015 title with an ACL tear, that would be fairly incredible. He said his knee doesn’t hurt when he is driving, but that it does bother him when he gets out of the car after driving 500 miles. He immediately puts his knee into a machine that compresses it and ices it after each race.

Denny Hamlin has finished third in NASCAR’s final standings in each of the past two years and was second in 2010. At age 34, he has never won a championship.

“There’s no running for me, no jumping – things like that,” Hamlin said. “I still don’t have my full leg strength back because my head still knows that my leg is injured, so it is correcting for it. But right now I’m really not hampered inside the race car at all.”

Hamlin, 34, has postponed ACL surgery until after the season, and he still has no intention of giving up recreational basketball. Hamlin loves hoops enough to play in a local rec league, and he has now torn the ACL in both his right and left knees while playing the sport.

The last ACL injury didn’t derail him either. Hamlin tore the ACL in his left knee before the 2010 season, had surgery and didn’t miss a race. He ended up winning a career-high eight times that year but finished second to Jimmie Johnson in the points championship.

Hamlin likes basketball so much he said he will wait until when and if he wrecks his knee a third time before quitting the sport.

I don’t think it’s wrong of him to play basketball in his free time – it hasn’t seemed to hurt his results and it certainly isn’t as dangerous as driving a race car. But I asked him why he was so determined to keep playing and why he keeps getting hurt.

“It’s the competitive side of me,” Hamlin said. “I also just think that I’m such an idiot, I don’t play within my skill level. I always try to do more. I’ve told all the people in this rec league that I will not be playing defense anymore. That’s where my injuries have all come from. I’ve got to play within myself, realize I’m not 25 anymore, and I’ll be fine.”

In the meantime, Hamlin has to try to win a championship on a bum knee.

“I’m selfish,” Hamlin said, “and I want to get myself a win. But really I want to get Joe Gibbs Racing a victory. It’s been since 2005 since anybody has won a championship there. That was the first year I came into the Cup series, and I know Joe has really worked hard to get another championship. He spares no expense doing that. I’d like to be the one to get him that championship.”

Then the celebration could begin. A burnout in the infield. A hug in Victory Lane. And, of course, knee surgery.