Denny Hamlin back in Sprint Cup victory lane despite back problems

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For crew chief Mike Wheeler, Sunday morning of the Sprint Cup race at Waktins Glen International began with news, the kind that’s “not something you really want to hear.”

A text message from his driver Denny Hamlin said Hamlin “was in trouble.”

The Daytona 500 winner had just woken up and something wasn’t right with his back. Hamin recognized the feeling, despite not having major problems with his back “in the past four to five years.”

“I don’t know what causes it,” Hamlin said Sunday after winning his second race of the year, diagnosing it as potentially sleeping in a bad position or due to race travel disrupting his exercise regimen.  “It just happens every now and then. It’s never happened on a race day, for sure.”

The Cheez-It 355 was scheduled to start at 2:49 p.m. ET. Hamlin had to endure a lot of pain before he could even climb into his No. 11 Toyota, which was sixth on the starting grid.

“We worked on it all day to try to make it better. We really didn’t make it much better,” said Hamlin. “If it was Friday or Saturday, no question I wouldn’t have turned one lap today. It was by far the worst conditions I’ve ever had to drive in, over the knees, anything else. This was by far the worst pain‑wise I’ve had to go through.”

This was coming from the driver who won at Texas Motor Speedway in April 2010 three weeks after undergoing surgery to repair ligaments in his left knee. Hamlin is the driver that raced through the entire Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2015 – including winning the opener at Chicagoland – after tearing his other ACL two weeks before its start and putting off surgery until the offseason.

In April 2015, Hamlin was even replaced by Erik Jones following a lengthy rain delay at Bristol Motor Speedway after pulling something in his neck, the pain from which “was bothering me quite a bit” Hamlin said.

On Sunday, Hamlin’s back was bothering him so much, he couldn’t even sit during the driver-crew chief meeting that began at 12:30 p.m. ET, about two hours before the race – which was 90 laps and 220.9 miles long – began.

Wheeler, in his first season as Hamlin’s Sprint Cup crew chief after years of working together, sat next to his driver.

“You could just tell he was in pain. Nothing you could do today to fix it,” Wheeler said. “He’s had this happen before years ago. But he knows the situation he was in and he knows he’s got to tough it out, and he did.”

When it comes to race length, you can’t factor in the unpredictability of wrecks or their severity. Twice the race was red-flagged, the first for 13 minutes and 19 seconds and the second, with five laps remaining, lasted for just under 17 minutes.

That was 17 minutes extra minutes of stewing in pain for Hamlin, who also happened to be in the lead after claiming it on a Lap 81 restart when Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski overshot Turn 1.

With Martin Truex Jr. and Keselowski behind him, Hamlin was in the best – albeit the most uncomfortable – position he’d ever been in to win a road course race in his 12-year career.

“Trust me, I’m sitting there, even though I’m joyed that we’re leading the race, I was thinking under the red flag, ‘Let’s get this over with so I can get out of this car,'” Hamlin admitted.

After two hours, 27 minutes and 48 seconds, Hamlin finally got out of his car, but he did so very slowly. The smoke from Hamlin’s celebratory burnout that ravaged his tires was still in the air and his teammates were running down pit road to celebrate. Hamlin slowly crept to the pit wall.

Unlike the smoke, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver couldn’t linger. He was needed elsewhere to celebrate his 28th Sprint Cup win, which redeemed his last turn mistake at Sonoma Raceway in June that gave Tony Stewart his 49th win.

On a bad back and with his car temporarily immobile on bad tires, Hamlin trudged into Victory Lane like a runner bringing up the tail end of a marathon.

“Honestly it’s more validating because I feel so awful,” Hamlin said. “There were many corners that I under‑drove just because my feel wasn’t as good today in the race car. That’s how we feel the edge is through our back side. When our back side is not healthy, it’s tough. That’s what made it extra special, is that when it was game time, when it was go time, we got it done.”

Cole Pearn to honor late friend with fundraiser for family next month in Toronto

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A testimonial to Cole Pearn’s best friend, who unexpectedly passed away in early August, as well as a fundraiser for his family will be held Friday, Jan. 5, at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Pearn’s lifelong friend, Jacob Damen, died unexpectedly after contracting a fast-moving bacterial infection on August 3.

Pearn, crew chief for the 2017 NASCAR Cup championship for Furniture Row Racing, will oversee the gala event, which will be held from 7 to 10 p.m. ET.

The evening will also include an appearance by 2017 NASCAR Cup champion Martin Truex Jr., silent and live auctions, the opportunity to meet both Pearn and Truex and other events.

All net proceeds from the evening will be given to the Damen Family Fund.

“We miss our buddy Jacob dearly,” Pearn said in a media release. “We all have family and friends that fill a space in our hearts that is irreplaceable.

“Jacob filled the hearts of his wife Carolyn, his sons Lucas and Nolan, his parents Jerry and Kim Damen, twin brother Tyler, sister Julia and countless friends.

“We are going to celebrate his life at the perfect spot, the Hockey Hall of Fame, to support his beautiful wife Carolyn and the two boys, Lucas and Nolan. I can’t wait to get home to celebrate with everyone.”

Click here for more details and to purchase tickets to the ‘Jacob Damen Friend and Fan Remembered’ event.

NASCAR Fan Appreciation Day scheduled for Jan. 20

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The annual NASCAR Fan Appreciation Day will return to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina, next month.

The event is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 20, the day after the 2018 Hall of Fame class is inducted.

Fans will be able to take part in an autograph session with current national series drivers, Hall of Famers and members of the NASCAR Next class, as well photo opportunities and question-and-answer sessions with a number of NASCAR legends.

Admission to Hall of Fame will be free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis

Admission to driver autograph sessions is free but will require a ticket for participation. Fans can register for the driver autograph sessions at nascarhall.com beginning Saturday, Jan. 13 at 10 a.m. ET. A full driver autograph session schedule will be announced at a later date.

 and on Facebook

Ryan Blaney to guest star on NBC’s ‘Taken’ next year

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Ryan Blaney has a particular set of skills; skills that he’s developed through years of professional auto racing.

The Team Penske driver will get to display those skills next year on NBC’s “Taken” TV Series.

The show serves as a prequel to the 2008 Liam Neeson film of the same name.

Blaney, 23, will guest start on the second season of the series, which premieres Jan. 12. He will appear in an episode titled “Imperium” as a special agent who knows his way around a car.

Here’s the plot synopsis for the episode.

“When a dangerous weapons dealer smuggles his wares into New York City, Bryan Mills (Clive Standen) teams up with the FBI in a race to stop him before he reaches the safety of international waters.”

This won’t be Blaney’s first time in front of a camera playing someone else. He had two movie cameos this year in Logan Lucky and Cars 3.

Blaney was filming his role in “Taken” on Tuesday in Ontario. See his tweets from the set below.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Ingram update: Leaves ICU, moves to acute care facility

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NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Ingram’s condition continues to improve following a serious car crash in his native Asheville, North Carolina on Dec. 3.

According to an online post by his daughter, Ingram was taken out of Intensive Care on Tuesday and moved into an Acute Care facility, which is not as serious as ICU is.

Ingram did suffer a small setback in his recovery, developing a slight infection that is being treated with antibiotics.

Added the note from Ingrid Jones, Jack’s daughter, “The acute care facility will work to start decreasing his pain meds, over time, and put him on less narcotics and more simple analgesics (like really strong Tylenol, but without narcotics).

“Also they will continue his therapies, physical and occupational, as he’s able. It is still hard to know what his long-term health future will be, but we think his color looks really good, and we have no doubts that he has the will and determination to see this through.

“So if it is humanly possible for him to overcome, he will.”

We’ll continue to have periodic updates on Ingram’s condition as they become available.