Denny Hamlin is a true warrior.
Even with a body that likely still rings with pain from March's hard wreck at Fontana, which resulted in a fractured vertebrae, he has soldiered on race after race since returning behind the wheel just four weeks after a wreck that likely would have sidelined another driver for a substantially longer period of time.
But with 18 races in the books left heading into Sunday's race at New Hampshire, perhaps it's time Hamlin should do the smart thing and sit out the rest of the season to fully recuperate.
I bring this up because I was asked the same question this week on several weekly radio shows that I give analysis for. At first, the same question from different hosts stunned me, but after lengthy consideration, I agree that with little to gain by continuing, Hamlin should call it a season early.
Sure, when Hamlin came back, he looked like Superman. In the first five races since he was cleared to drive again, he finished second at Darlington, fourth at Charlotte and eighth at Pocono. He also won the pole at Charlotte and Dover.
But take those results away, and Hamlin has struggled miserably for most of the time since his return: with one finish of 23rd and five other finishes of 30th or worse.
And in the past two races and three of the past six, he's been involved in some pretty brutal wrecks—perhaps not quite as bad as the Fontana crash, but bone-jarring and teeth-knocking impacts nonetheless.
You can't help but think that one of those impacts may have aggravated his already fragile condition after Fontana.
Since he returned at Talladega for the 10th race of the season, Hamlin's goal has been to win a couple of races, boost himself into the top 20 and then take his chances that he'll still make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
That's been his one and only focus.
But heading into Sunday, with just eight races remaining to qualify for the Chase, it's pretty apparent that Hamlin will miss the 10-race playoffs for the first time in his career.
And with the way his car and body have pinballed around the past few races, maybe it's time Hamlin take himself out of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for the remainder of the season and get a full rest and recovery—the kind of R&R that he should have done after Fontana instead of being so headstrong to come back four races later.
Let's face it, Hamlin's season is over.
After finishing 21st Sunday at New Hampshire, Hamlin is 25th in the Sprint Cup season standings (and has been no higher than 24th since his return). Watching his reaction time and ability behind the wheel the past several races clearly indicate that Denny is just not the Denny we all know so well.
What does he have to gain by staying in the throttle for the rest of the season?
Instead, Hamlin should be a good soldier and put JGR ahead of his competitive spirit.
Instead of racing and likely see his futility continue to grow—not to mention run the risk of even more body-jarring wrecks that likely would only exacerbate his back woes—and instead of sitting in a race car, he should be sitting in bed, or at the very least on a beach, and come back 100 percent next season.
At the same time, if Hamlin was to sit out the rest of the season, it would give opportunities to two former Sprint Cup drivers who have tried to rebuild their careers in the Nationwide Series.
Ironically, both race full time on the NNS schedule for JGR. Of course, I'm talking about Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers. And if he has a few weekends open, how about adding AJ Allmendinger to the mix, as well?
Hamlin has absolutely nothing to gain by staying in the car. But in what would likely be construed as the ultimate act of selflessness, Hamlin would win a great deal of admiration and support even from non-fans if he stepped aside to give his two JGR teammates a chance to drive his car the rest of the season.
Hamlin comes into Sunday's race at Loudon a massive 320 points behind Sprint Cup Series leader Jimmie Johnson. Even if Johnson were to finish last in the next eight races, Hamlin still would not come close to catching Johnson, let alone make the Chase.
So why beat himself up—literally and physically—by continuing to race? Best-case scenario, Hamlin might finish as high as 20th by season's end.
Is it worth it to go through pain and frustration for the next 18 weeks?
To their credit, team owners Joe Gibbs and son J.D. Gibbs have let Hamlin dictate pretty much everything since the Fontana wreck: his recovery, his rehab and his return.
Other owners might not be as patient as the Gibbs.
Even primary sponsor FedEx has let Hamlin decide what was right for him, rather than worrying about fulfilling sponsorship and contractual obligations.
Maybe that's where the decision should come from. Instead of limply carrying the FedEx banner, maybe the company that pays the bills for the No. 11 team should tell Hamlin to take an extended vacation.
But of course, tell him in a nice way, acting out of concern for his well-being.
He's earned it for being an outstanding ambassador for the brand over the last seven-plus years. But sometimes, athletes like Hamlin are just so gung-ho and so uber competitive, they don't know when to stop or take a break.
Clearly, Hamlin's hopes of a fairytale comeback have not materialized, and, if his performance in the past four-plus races is any indication, Hamlin is going to do little more than just continue to spin his wheels for the second half of the season.
Hit the beach, Denny. Play some golf (but be careful on the backswing and follow-through). Go sit on a beach with a couple of cocktails—or at the very least, spend some quality time with your little girl—and come back 100 percent for 2014.
Because you're not doing anyone—particularly yourself—much good playing at 50 percent.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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