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Richmond, Va. - Denny Hamlin wishes he didn't need medical clearance to race.
The 32-year-old NASCAR star drove himself to Richmond International Raceway on Thursday, but was begrudgingly preparing for another weekend watching someone else drive his familiar No. 11 Toyota.
At his hometown track, that was doubly disappointing because the weekend kicked off with two races on Thursday night, including the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown to benefit Hamlin's charitable foundation.
"I'd rather just do it," Hamlin said about getting back in the race car. "Honestly, I know everyone is trying to protect me from myself, but I would have raced at Martinsville two weeks ago."
Hamlin wasn't cleared to return, however, after a visit Wednesday to Dr. Jerry Petty of Carolina Neurosurgery and Spine Associates, and telephone consultations with others. Much of the phone call sounded like a foreign language, Hamlin said, though he did pick up enough to understand things are inexact with injuries such as his, and recovery times.
"Some kind of in-plate is not healing the way that they wanted it and that's what they wanted in order to clear me," said Hamlin, who grew up within 30 minutes of RIR. "Really, that was their determining factor and, obviously, my injury is very, very hard because there is no exact science to the risk.
"No one knows what the risk will be if I race this week or if I race two weeks from now."
Hamlin already deals with chronic pain caused by bulging discs in his back, and says he'd have no trouble climbing in an out of a window to get in the car. He tentatively plans to do that next weekend at Talladega, where his goal is to start the race to begin collecting critical driver points, then climb out at the first opportunity and turn the car over to a relief driver.
That's just a short-term fix, though, and Hamlin sees the point of no return not far in the distance.
After Talladega, the series moves to Darlington where starting and relinquishing the car would be difficult to do without losing several laps, making the idea of writing off the season appear ever more sensible.
Hamlin is clinging to the idea that if he misses a handful of races, his team could accumulate enough points in the races he does make to still gain one of the 12 spots in the 10-race championship run.
With each race he misses, though, that become a much less likely scenario, and one that could cause him to decide to have back surgery planned for the offseason sooner with an eye toward a healthier 2014.
"I think if this goes past Darlington, then I don't know what the chances of us making the Chase are even if we were to race this weekend, race next weekend or the one after," he said.
"Obviously, if it goes past Darlington our chances are crushed even harder."
Surgery would have a recovery period of about six weeks, Hamlin said, leaving open the possibility to he could return to run a few races at the end of the season, but without championship aspirations.
Then again, Hamlin joked a day after Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth received harsh penalties from NASCAR, "if everyone keeps getting these penalties, I'm going to be the points leader soon."