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.”