His season had officially slipped away that night as Hamlin failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field for the first time in his career. He walked gingerly from the care center, in front of all his friends and family, set on finishing the year despite the fractured vertebra that had derailed his season and was causing him so much discomfort.
That dogged determination — in his rehabilitation, in the gym, with Pilates instruction, sitting in ice baths — eventually helped him turn a corner. He was feeling substantially better by the end of the season, when he won his only race of the year in the finale at Homestead. But it gave him momentum into the offseason and resolve to make 2014 his year.
His win in last weekend’s exhibition Sprint Unlimited was a statement for Hamlin and for anyone who doubted he couldn’t return from his injury.
“Any questions?” he asked as he crossed the finish line.
Hamlin heads into today’s Daytona 500 as a driver on a mission. He’s out to prove he’s a threat to win the season-opening race and maybe even the Sprint Cup championship.
Hamlin missed five races a year ago with his injury, suffered when he crashed racing Joey Logano for the win at California. Since arriving in Daytona a week ago, he has made it very clear he is only looking forward.
“You’re always excited about starting the season, but for me it was more about really starting the season strong, to just totally forget about 2013,” he said.
“I’m sure the questions will always continue. I don’t want any more questions about last year, but I understand they’re still going to be coming. It’s just I don’t want to relive it. It was a horrible year, definitely a year that you choose to forget.”
WHEN: Today, 10 a.m.
WHERE: Daytona Beach. Fla.
DISTANCE: 500 miles, 200 laps
TV: Fox (KTVU, Ch. 2)