Just prior to the beginning of the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Denny Hamlin announced that he had torn his right ACL playing basketball. This was his second ACL tear in the last five years, as the Virginia native underwent off-season surgery to repair his beat up ACL.
Over the course of his career, Hamlin has been notorious for getting injured. Whether it was breaking his back in 2013 after being wrecked by Joey Logano at Auto Club Speedway, a piece of glass getting into his eye, severe neck spasms that had Erik Jones replace him at Bristol in 2015 or his most recent ACL tear, injuries have cost the Joe Gibbs Racing driver some time behind the wheel.
In 2010, Hamlin tore his ACL and had to go to the shortest track in NASCAR, and the track that is arguably the toughest on a driver’s leg, Martinsville, and won the race. The next day, he underwent surgery to fix the tear. After the off-week, the series returned to the Texas Motor Speedway where he also went out and earned the triumph, struggling to get out of his car in Victory Lane.
However, the most recent tear was a lot worse than the first one, according to Hamlin. The pain was similar, but the extent of the surgery and rehabilitation was more complex. This time, the rehabilitation has been tougher, forcing Hamlin to spend more time in physical therapy as he gears up for the 2016 season.
“Well, this one is extensively worse than the first,” Hamlin told Speedway Digest in a teleconference. “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, so we did a cadaver and 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.”
In the last six years technology has changed, resulting in a different type of surgery for Hamlin. He still had to repair the wounded leg, but with driving in 11 races post-ACL tear, including a win at Chicago, he had time to think about when and how he wanted the surgery done.
This surgery differs from the one in 2010 because it is a little more extensive. It was a slightly more severe surgery, allowing for a better rehab because he actually had time to go to rehabilitation. When he tore the ACL six years ago, there was no time to get out of a racecar and get the right procedure done.
“But this is kind of a new latest way that they're doing these surgeries,” Hamlin said. “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.”
Since Hamlin waited until after the season in which he recorded two victories, 14 top fives and 20 top-10 finishes, he would look to make a full recovery by the Daytona 500. However, the “Great American Race” is just over three weeks away and he has recovered just over 50 percent.
On Jan. 19 at the NASCAR Media Tour, Hamlin announced that he was about 50 percent in terms of his recovery. In the last week he has regained some stability and range in motion, in which he has struggled with since surgery. He also mentioned that he believes his knee will be a non-factor in two weeks when cars are back on track for Sprint Unlimited and Daytona 500 practice.
Hamlin, 35, believed that this procedure was necessary so that after recovery he would be stronger than he was before.
Said Hamlin: “Even if I gain one to two 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.”
During the 2010 season after his last ACL surgery, Hamlin went on win eight races and was in position to compete for a championship until the final race, where he had a 15-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson prior to the event as Johnson went on to win his fifth consecutive championship.
Coming off the season in which he had the most wins since the 2012 season, Hamlin will look to conquer his first title, injury free in 2016.