If Denny Hamlin wins the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship on Sunday, he’ll be the first driver to do so without competing in a full slate of races since Richard Petty took the title in 1971 running 46-of-48 scheduled events.
Hamlin missed the March race at Fontana, California, because of an eye injury. Before NASCAR’s new, revamped championship format went into effect this year, that injury likely would have ended Hamlin’s title hopes, but a medical exemption built into the new system proved his saving grace.
That and a pep talk from NASCAR President Mike Helton, who helped Hamlin make the agonizing decision to sit out the Fontana race after a tiny shard of metal lodged in his eye. A year earlier, a compression fracture of the spine, the result of an accident at Fontana, had caused Hamlin to miss four races.
As he contemplated his eye injury, Hamlin experienced a case of déjà vu, until Helton put his mind at ease.
“As devastated as I was when I was in that infield care center,” Hamlin recalled, “Helton walked in and said, ‘This is why we have this format put out there — now just go win a race and put yourself in position. I’ll never forget that, because at the time I was thinking, ‘Our year is done. How can this happen two years in a row?’
“And he said, ‘Just do the job that we know you can do, and you’ll find yourself in that position when we get to the Chase.' We did it. And we just keep battling the odds every single round, and now we’ve got one more round to battle the odds.”
Even with the encouraging words, however, getting out of the car was far from an easy decision for Hamlin.
“We had a difficult conversation — am I able to do my job or not?” Hamlin said. “We had a difficult conversation, and Helton said the best thing to do is not race, and this is why we set out these medical exemptions. They granted me one, and we kept moving on.”
As it turned out, Hamlin did exactly what Helton suggested. He won the spring race at Talladega to qualify for the Chase.