NASCAR’s new rules that advance two drivers into the Chase for the Championship based on victories, not a top-10 position in the point standings, is one reason why drivers aren’t as compelled to drive while they’re hurt.
Denny Hamlin stepped out of his No. 11 Toyota for four races while he recovered from a fractured vertebra suffered in a final-lap crash March 24 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
Without the wild card loophole, it’s likely Hamlin wouldn’t have heeded doctors’ orders and tried to drive through the pain.
The top 10 drivers after 26 regular season races automatically move into the playoffs. So do two other drivers with the most victories – as long as they are among the top 20 in points.
Hamlin still faces an uphill climb to get back into the top 20 in the next 15 races, including Sunday’s marathon Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He also hasn’t won yet.
But at least he has a chance. And more importantly, he’s able to do it with a healthier body.
Before NASCAR added the wild cards before the 2012 season, many drivers continued to race because missing just one race essentially ended any championship hopes.
In 2010, Hamlin raced less than two weeks after having his left knee reconstructed. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament playing basketball and he had surgery during the first bye week of the season. A week later, he ran all 312 laps at Phoenix International Raceway.
“We see some of the best players in sports have their best games when they’re sick,” Hamlin said. “It’s just part of it I think. I think this is just the level of focus that you find.”
NASCAR has a long history of drivers racing while they’re hurt.
“When we raced, there was only one rule: you couldn’t drive with a cast,” Donnie Allison said. “I did that a couple times. You cut the cast off and you raced.
“I’m glad they’re careful now. I’m glad they have to get a doctor to clear them. I’m glad guys are smart enough to get out of the car when they’re hurt. Looking back now, I may have put myself at risk – and everyone else on the track.”
One of the legendary tales of driving with pain involved Ricky Rudd, who drove in the 1984 Daytona 500 with a concussion suffered in a barrel roll crash eight days earlier in the Busch Clash All-Star race.
Rudd’s injury was so severe he taped his eyelids open to offset swelling.
Darrell Waltrip suffered a broken leg, broken arm and a concussion during a practice crash in preparation for the 1990 July race at the Daytona International Speedway.
He missed the 400-mile race at Daytona because he was in the hospital, but he was back in the car a week later at Pocono Raceway.
Terry Labonte won the championship in 1996, and he drove the final race of the season at the Atlanta Motor Speedway with a broken hand.
“You had to do it,” Labonte said. “You didn’t have a choice. You’re always in a points battle, so it’s never was an option.”
Mark Martin (broken wrist, knee and ribs in 1999), Richard Petty (broken neck in 1980), Dale Earnhardt (broken sternum and collarbone in 1996), Bobby Labonte (broken shoulder blade in 1999) and Brad Keselowski (broken ankle in 2011) all have driven hurt.
Drivers no longer have the final say on when they can return. The sanctioning body now requires clearance from medical experts. But even when they can pass an examination, it doesn’t mean they won’t have to face a lot of pain.
“You just - you’re just going to do it,” Clint Bowyer said. “This is what we love to do and we’d do it even if it didn’t pay anything, truth be told. It’s just the nature of the beast.”
Carl Edwards broke his right foot in 2009 while throwing a Frisbee. Although he was on crutches for nearly two months, he never missed a race.
“I couldn’t put any weight on my foot for eight weeks, so, for me, it was more about outside the race car my life was different,” Edwards said. “Just trying to get up and down the stairs and stuff like that was difficult.
“In the race car, it was my right foot and there wasn’t a lot of stress on that foot with the throttle pedal, so it wasn’t that difficult in the race car with my particular injury. It was outside the race car that was frustrating.”
Keselowski broke his left ankle while testing at Road Atlanta. Four days later he won at Pocono. There was a 90-minute rain delay during the race and doctors drained fluid from his ankle during the break.
Keselowski’s hand was bleeding after the win at Pocono from the constant shifting on the frontstretch. That didn’t keep him from racing the next week, either.