DARLINGTON, S.C. – Denny Hamlin has found the perfect way to rehab his surgically repaired knee – winning NASCAR races.
Hamlin became the first driver in 17 years to sweep the Sprint Cup and Nationwide events at Darlington Raceway, an achievement even more remarkable since he was on the operating table on March 31 to fix a painful ACL tear in his left knee.
Still, less than two weeks later, Hamlin was back in his No. 11 Toyota and barely missing a shift. Hamlin says the racing helps with the knee’s recovery.
“It really is like a physical therapy session in there,” Hamlin said of the driver’s cockpit. “With the car, you have a little bit of vibration right there on the steering column. I kind of rest my leg against it.”
Plus, at Darlington, Hamlin added a couple of therapeutic winner’s burnouts.
Hamlin out-raced JGR teammate Kyle Busch to take the Royal Purple 200 on Friday night. At Saturday’s Southern 500, Hamlin moved to the front late in the race and held on while prime contenders Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton made pit errors to fall back.
It’s been a quicker than expected recovery for an injury that may keep athletes in stick-and-ball sports off the field for months.
Hamlin injured his ligament playing basketball. After winning at Martinsville on March 29, Hamlin knew he couldn’t drive without surgery. After the procedure, many at Joe Gibbs Racing held their breath about the season ahead – especially when Hamlin insisted jumping back in when the series went to Phoenix.
“We didn’t know if he was going to make it the whole race, maybe half a race, what was he going to do,” JGR team president J.D. Gibbs said. “I think he went up a few notches in my eyes (with) the mental toughness.”
Hamlin followed a gritty, 30th-place finish in Arizona with a rousing win at Texas a week later.
Hamlin was asked what his ironman effort at Phoenix showed about himself.
“The easy way would have been to get out of the car, sit there, watch someone else go through hell the rest of the race with a car that was dinged up,” Hamlin said.
“There’s been many times my guys have gone over and beyond for me in certain situations and stuck up for me. I felt like it was important for me to step up and do the same for them.”