LOUDON, N.H. — Denny Hamlin’s Sprint Cup season has been an unwanted procession of alarming impacts that have forced a decision potentially as jarring as a 200-mph collision with a concrete wall.
It’s time for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver to weigh whether it’s worth continuing to race in NASCAR’s premier series this year.
The insurmountable reality of mediocre results and increasingly cringe-worthy crashes are screaming that it isn’t.
Hamlin has reached a self-proclaimed threshold where season-ending back surgery would make more sense than finishing out the string of a campaign tainted by portentous wrecks. The growing piles of mangled sheet metal carry a message that seems unmistakable: Sorry kid, this isn’t your year.
Since returning from the wreck at Fontana, Calif., that fractured his back and sidelined him for four races, Hamlin’s miracle bid for making the Chase for the Sprint Cup has dimmed at an accelerated rate. After courageously returning with consecutive top-five finishes at Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, Hamlin started on the pole position June 2 at Dover International Speedway. A blown tire sent his No. 11 Toyota rocketing into the wall and triggered a significant downturn in his fortunes.
He has crashed the past three weekends — in practice at Sonoma Raceway and in races at Kentucky Speedway and Daytona International Speedway.
As physically taxing as the year has been, there are signs it has been as mentally draining, too.
According to David Smith’s MotorsportsAnalytics.com (a site that offers NASCAR analysis via sabermetrics-style advanced statistics), Hamlin’s terminal crash frequency (measuring the rate at which he is being eliminated from races by wrecks) is a series-high 0.31 this year. In the last seven years, the highest mark posted during a season is 0.25 (Ward Burton in 2007).
It’s worth pondering whether Hamlin, who was so focused and steady last season despite stumbles by his team, is pressing too hard to earn the victories needed for the Chase. A breather might help as much in clearing his mind as fully healing his body.
With each sickening thud, it’s more agonizing watching Hamlin walk gingerly from his battered Camry to a waiting ambulance, particularly when there seems little left at stake.