Rare week off comes at great time for ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin

It’s perfect timing for two NASCAR drivers who need some time off to try and overcome health issues.

By Joe Menzer

The final week off for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in this 2016 season could not be coming at a better time for two of its top stars, Dale Earnhardt Jr. andDenny Hamlin.

Both drivers could use the extra time away from the grind of a track on a race weekend to try to overcome health issues.

Earnhardt has missed the last four races while trying to recover from concussion-like symptoms. He met with the media last Friday at Watkins Glen and admitted, once again, that he isn’t certain when he will be able to get back behind the wheel of his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet again.

But he did make it clear that he intends to drive again. And an extra week off should only help get him closer to that goal.

“I think my doctors have a good understanding of my history and what I have been through and with their own personal knowledge that they have throughout their careers to give me a clear understanding of when I will be ready to go back and get into a race car,” Earnhardt said. “Our intentions are to get cleared and get back to racing. We are just taking it one evaluation at a time.”

Hamlin’s situation, while far less serious, nonetheless is cause for concern. Despite winning last Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at The Glen, Hamlin told crew chief Mike Wheeler before the race that he wasn’t sure he could drive the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota because of intense pain and spasms in his back.

“I got the text (Sunday) morning when he woke up. He was in trouble. He said it,” Wheeler said. “It was like, you know, not something you really want to hear. You know you got good cars, good teammates, (solid) track position to start.

“But at the end of the day I know he mans up when he needs to. I almost want to say if he knew he didn’t have a winning car, he might do something different. But I know he definitely gets that attitude going in the car when he has a winning car and can run up front, he’s going to tough it out.”

Wheeler added that he knew his driver was not feeling well during Sunday’s pre-race drivers’ meeting.

“I sat next to him. It was so uncomfortable, he couldn’t even sit down. He stood up,” Wheeler said. “You could just tell he was in pain. There was nothing you could do (Sunday) to fix it.

“He’s been running pretty hard lately, been busy with the sport. He’s had this happen before years ago. But he knew the situation he was in and he knew he had to tough it out, and he did.”

Now both Earnhardt and Hamlin will get some well-needed extra rest.

Hamlin said he just woke up with his back in a knot last Sunday, and added that he expects to be fine soon — long before the next Sprint Cup race one week from Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I don’t know what causes it. It just happens every now and then,” Hamlin said. “It’s never happened on a race day, for sure. Usually I’m in the car and things get looser as the weekend goes on.

“Really, I haven’t had back problems in the past four to five years. It’s all subsided pretty well.  I’ve got a pretty good routine that I do during the week that helps with that. But (last Sunday), you know, I slept wrong or something. I woke up and knew I was in pretty big trouble. … Now if it was Friday or Saturday, no question I wouldn’t have turned one lap. It was by far the worst conditions I’ve ever had to drive in, over the knees (that were surgically repaired in past years), anything else. This was by far the worst pain‑wise I’ve had to go through.”

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