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Replacing Hamlin is Christopher Bell, who plans to take the helm of the No.18 Sport Clips Toyota GR Supra in the Sport Clips Haircuts VFW Help A Hero 200. Hamlin specifically cites “soreness” sustained from last week’s crash at Daytona as the reason he’s sitting out Saturday’s race. As the No.11 Toyota cruised into lap 138, Mother Nature and the track’s dangerous, soaking-wet conditions had other plans for Hamlin and the field.
“I have had some soreness in my neck, back, and hips from the wreck on Sunday,” Hamlin stated Wednesday in a release from Joe Gibb Racing. “I feel like the right thing for me to do is to sit out the Xfinity Series race and put 100% of my focus on getting ready for this weekend’s Cup Series playoff race.”
As the drivers entered turn one with the rain pouring, a dozen cars lost grip simultaneously. Hamlin, who was leading as he rounded the outside lane, lost control in the dreary conditions, becoming sandwiched by multiple cars on the rain-slicked course. Though he insists that his injuries are not serious enough to derail his playoff aspirations, the visuals of the pile up would have had his fans nervous.
“My whole body – literally my jaw hurts. I feel like my jaw was like one of those boxer’s who gets his whole face demolished,” Hamlin joked through the pain. “That was certainly the first real big one I’ve had in this car. Everything they’ve been telling us – all the other drivers – is true, is legit.”
Thankfully, Hamlin's concerns don't appear significant at this stage, unlike Kurt Busch. After sustaining a traumatic concussion at Pocono that has had lingering effects, the 2004 Cup Series champion has been sidelined from racing ever since, leaving Ty Gibbs – son of team owner Joe Gibbs – to jump into the cockpit and fill in for the injured veteran. Bubba Wallace is now slated to run the final stretch for Joe Gibbs Racing, which is still competing for owner points.
In the world of NASCAR, chronic soreness in the neck and especially the back is nothing to trifle with when behind the wheel of a vehicle traveling at 200 miles per hour. With the tension rattling throughout every inch of the drivers’ bones, even the most routine laps can exacerbate both nominal and serious physical ailments. Many other drivers have experienced this in the past, including legendary champion Tony Stewart whose final season was derailed due to a burst fracture of his L1 vertebra that he could not overcome.
Joe Gibbs Racing will surely be doing everything to monitor its star driver’s progress, but no one knows his body better than Hamlin who, unfortunately, has become accustomed to dealing with injuries in the past. A crash with Joey Logano at Auto Club Speedway in 2013 left Hamlin with an agonizingly painful compression fracture in his lower back that cost him a shot at the Chase. The 2015 season delivered a heavy blow to Hamlin who completed the year after enduring a knee injury that required surgery.
If Hamlin can prepare his body for battle Sunday, he’ll enter the race as the sixth seed and 27 points behind leader Chase Elliott. Darlington is far and away a clear favorite of Hamlin, who has notched four wins at the South Carolina track along with 11 top five finishes with an average finish of 7.8 in 20 starts.
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