Denny Hamlin motivated to not be team’s ‘weak link’ after ACL rehab

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At the NASCAR Media Tour last week, Denny Hamlin said his right knee was at about 50 percent following ACL surgery to repair a tear suffered last September while playing basketball.

In a teleconference Wednesday, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver reiterated he would be set to go for the season-opening Daytona 500, but said the rehab process was “extensively worse” than what he went through in 2010 when he had to recover from an injury to his left knee.

“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,” Hamlin said. “It would recover faster, and we didn’t think we’d have any injuries to that same leg going forward.”

Hamlin got back into the car right after surgery in 2010 and won within two races over the course of three weeks. Two races after his 2015 injury, Hamlin won the first race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Chicagoland Speedway. But Hamlin postponed his surgery this time until after the season ended in November.

“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,” Hamlin said. “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.

“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.”

Less than a month out from the Daytona 500, Hamlin said the biggest issue with in the recovery process was his range of motion. But Hamlin believes it will be a “non-issue” in two weeks when it comes time to get in his No. 11 Toyota for the Sprint Unlimited.

“Really for me it’s more like when can I start running again?” Hamlin said. “That’s the biggest hurdle mentally that we fight through all this is not being able to do some of these activities that we use to kind of take racing off of our mind because once the racing season starts, any given Saturday I’m kind of looking for a golf course after practice is over to relax a little bit, and right now I’m not able to do any of that.

As Hamlin showed in 2010 and others since, recovery doesn’t keep drivers from finding success quickly upon return to the driver seat.

The 26-time winner can’t explain what led Brad Keselowski to win at Pocono in 2011 with a broken ankle or Kyle Busch to win four of five races last season weeks after returning from his leg injuries.

“Whatever it may be that we find within us to perform at a high level, it always seems to happen when we’re injured,” Hamlin said. “A lot of it probably is because we don’t want to be the weak link. We don’t want to be the one that is responsible for our team running bad, so we make sure we do all it takes to run good.”