Despite all the rumors, the only thing that kept Denny Hamlin from racing March 23 at Auto Club Speedway in Southern California was a tiny sliver of metal in his eye.
Removing it proved to be a simple matter. His eye healed and he returned to the track last Sunday at Martinsville, Va.
The effort to repair his reputation turned out to be more challenging.
Hamlin went to the infield care center at Auto Club before the race with blurred vision and a headache. He was sent to a nearby hospital with what originally diagnosed as a sinus infection.
Even as Hamlin was being transported, the rumor mill at the track already was in full motion. Some suggested he was suffering from a hangover. Others said it might have been a reaction to something a little more devious.
And when he didn’t offer an immediate explanation to his condition, it only fueled even more speculation.
Hamlin’s injury exposed the difficult common ground between privacy and the need for information. Fellow drivers wanted answers since they have to race 190 mph with Hamlin. At the same time, Hamlin has the right to keep his private information out of the public forum.
It’s a balancing act that’s difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish.
“I don’t need to really justify a lot to a lot of people,” Hamlin said. “I think the important people are NASCAR, my team guys and things like that. My health is my business.”
Hamlin was understandably upset by any notion he would do anything, legally or otherwise, to jeopardize his life and career. While everyone in the garage area became satisfied with the clarification, Hamlin didn’t like defending himself against untrue and unfounded rumors.
“I’m going to try not to get mad,” Hamlin said last Friday. “Like I just said, my health is my business. But what if it was cancer or tumor, I don’t have to tell anyone that. It’s my business.
“People who thing negatively of me or think that we side-stepped some sort of drug test or something is ridiculous. I’m in one of the top-three cars in NASCAR. I would have to be an absolute moron, a moron, to risk that.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. made matters worse March 25 when he told USA Today two days after the race he wanted answers why Hamlin missed the race at Auto Club.
“I’m worried the perception is bad for NASCAR and the perception is bad for Denny,” Earnhardt said.
“If Denny didn’t race because his vision is blurred and he had a sinus infection, NASCAR should put out a release and say, ‘This is the timeline of the events and this is why we made this choice and this is the protocol for going forward.’ That answers everybody’s questions.
“Don’t you have questions? I have questions. We shouldn’t have questions. We should all feel pretty comfortable with what happened.”
Joe Gibbs Racing released a statement about the piece of metal – and Hamlin’s subsequent approval by NASCAR to race again – on March 26.
The battle between the need to know and privacy isn’t new in NASCAR.
In 1987, Dale Earnhardt went to NASCAR officials with concerns about Tim Richmond’s behavior at Michigan International Speedway. He said Richmond seemed distracted during practice and qualifying.
It turned out to be Richmond’s final race. He left to recover from pneumonia.
Despite rampant speculation and demands for answers for two years, Richmond’s family waited 10 days after his death in 1989 to reveal he suffered with AIDS.
In 1997, Earnhardt blacked out before the start of the Southern 500. Doctors cleared him to race without finding what caused him to fall asleep at the wheel.
That sparked reactions from seven-time champion Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon.
“Everybody would have liked for them to have found something, just to have answers for what happened,” Gordon said.
Hamlin became the newest driver to face scrutiny.
“For people to question who I am inside and outside the race car, I’ve never done anything to even put that in question,” he said. “I go to (Charlotte) Bobcats games; I go out and hang out with friends out in public. I don’t stay tucked in my motor home; I don’t stay tucked into my house. It’s not what I like to do.
“Because I’m out there a little bit more people think I got out and I party. I got a wakeup call because I don’t drink at all, hardly ever. I’ve never done drugs, ever. I’m as clean as they come.”