March 28, 2014

Cleared to race, Denny Hamlin reasserts himself and his reputation

After missing last week’s race, Hamlin puts up the fastest lap in practice.

Denny Hamlin acted like a driver with a reputation to restore in public.

And back up on the track.

Chapped by the idea that he was hiding something like a failed drug test as the reason for missing last week’s race, he said he would have to be a “moron” to risk his ride in the No. 11 for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I’m in one of the top three cars in NASCAR,” he said Friday at Martinsville Speedway, speaking to reporters for the first time since he sat out last week’s race at Auto Club Speedway in California. “I would have to be an absolute moron — moron — to risk that. I have a daughter that I have to provide for for a really long time. For people to question who I am inside and outside the race car, I’ve never done anything to even put that in question.”

There also should be no question Hamlin is fine. He put up the top practice lap Friday and promised it was not an accident.

“It obviously shows that we’ve very capable of winning the race this weekend, and I’m pretty sure we will,” he said.

Hamlin later earned the No. 2 starting spot with a lap at 99.548 mph.

It was a piece of metal in his eye that kept Hamlin out of his car last week. But the first reason given on race day was that a sinus infection had affected his vision and that he had been hospitalized because of it. Later, the correct reason for his withdrawal was announced, and Hamlin put out a statement Wednesday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had said earlier in the week that the lack of definitive word from Hamlin and NASCAR left questions in the air. “Why NASCAR did the things they did and the timeline, it would be good to know those things because the drivers are all curious and the fans are curious,” he said.

Friday, speaking before Hamlin spoke to reporters, Earnhardt said Hamlin’s statement satisfied him.

“I was just worried,” Earnhardt said. “I thought that the lack of a statement from Denny’s point of view left him vulnerable and unprotected. I just felt like it was important for him to have a very simple statement that sort of cleared up any kind of assumptions or whatever you have for him personally.”

Hamlin did not mention Earnhardt in his remarks, and Earnhardt did not accuse Hamlin of anything improper. Earnhardt said early in the week that rumors start and “it just doesn’t need to be going on.”

Hamlin said he goes out and is not a homebody, but he said that doesn’t mean he has to justify his personal life.

“It’s just frustrating — just because I’m out there a little bit more in the public, that bugs me because I’m a human being and I like doing fun things,” he said. “If people think I have to go out and I have to drink to have fun, they’re wrong and they haven’t hung out with me. Because I don’t.

“It just bothers me, because there’s people that like to make rumors. And, of course, within our NASCAR community, rumors become truth when enough people say it,” he said.

Hamlin will be going for his fifth Martinsville victory Sunday in the STP 500. It’s the same race he missed last year because of injury — the broken back he suffered at California the week before.

“We’re getting headlines for reasons we don’t like, but we’re going to get back on track, and when we do, it can be really good for us and bad for the competition,” he said.

Asked if he has room for another grandfather clock, the trophy the track provides for the winner at Martinsville, Hamlin said, “I’m going to win it this weekend. I promise.”

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