On Friday, Denny Hamlin stepped into the media center at Martinsville (Va.) International Speedway for a press conference. Hamlin, a Chesterfield, Va., native, missed last weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., because of a vision issue that was originally thought to be a sympton of a sinus infection but was later discovered to be a result of a sliver of metal and rust in his eye. On Wednesday, he was cleared by NASCAR for competition at Martinsville. On Friday, he qualified on the front row for Sunday’s STP 500 Sprint Cup Series at Martinsville in his home state of Virginia.
Aside from talking about the vision issue and missing the race in Fontana, Hamlin talked about the delay, and reason for said delay, in regards to an official announcement being made to confirm the reason for his problem.
Also worth noting — Hamlin promised to win on Sunday.
Here’s the full transcript:
How are you feeling?
“I feel good — definitely ready to get going here.”
Was it important to be fast in practice?
“It wasn’t a goal to go out there and be first in practice. We didn’t set out to — of course that’s a goal for everyone, but it’s not something that we put extra effort on, especially practice. It obviously shows that we’re very capable of winning the race this weekend and I’m pretty sure we will.”
Did you ever think prior to Sunday that you could miss the race?
“I didn’t think that we were — I literally thought on Friday that I was starting to get a sty. It happened sometime during practice whether it came in through the car or through the air conditioning unit through the helmet — something, it came in through somewhere, but I don’t remember the exact time when it happened. Friday evening I definitely felt an agitation right in the corner to my upper eyelid so I thought I was getting a sty because it just felt like one. Then Saturday, I woke up and it was a little worse. I ran through practice and vision was fine, but just a lot of watering and I didn’t see any swelling of the eyelid so I knew it wasn’t a sty at that point. I didn’t go to the infield care center until late on Saturday. Me and my girlfriend went to the mall — we were shopping around and it was bothering me so much that I contacted one of the NASCAR liaisons and asked if anyone was still at the infield care center. They said they would wait on me so they waited on me. They looked at it, they dyed it, they put it under a black light — didn’t see any scratches, didn’t see anything in the eye. Immediately we started trying to figure out what would be causing it if there’s nothing in it. The only thing I could think of is I was starting to actually get a little stuffy on my left hand side of my face and my nose was running a little bit. I mentioned to them in trying to cover all the possibilities that I showed them a CT scan from January where I had a really, really bad sinus infection — it was the worst the doctor has ever seen and Dr. Petty has been around a really, really long time. He says it’s the worst he’s ever seen so we took some antibiotics for a couple weeks, I started feeling better and so I never went back to him to get a scan, which I probably should have went back to Petty in January after I took all the antibiotics and felt better. I just assumed that if I feel better then more than likely it’s gone. So the only other option, I went to bed Saturday night, woke up Sunday and felt twice as worse — pain was twice as worse and vision was slightly impaired over where it was Saturday. So I stayed in the infield care center for a couple hours and we tried to go over all the possibilities of what it could be and really since they didn’t see anything in it, the only thing we could do was get an optometrist to come to the race track, which it was too late into the day for that, it was too late for me to go to one and come back in time so everyone came to an agreement that the best thing for me was to go to the hospital and get scanned in case. There’s tons of different possibilities, whether it be a blood clot — anything that affects because there’s more to it, but any time wind would hit my eye it would shoot a pain right to my temple so they thought that there was something really bad going on behind the eye that they didn’t have the equipment in the infield care center — you need some pretty — you need to get a CT scan. No track has that and won’t ever have that. It’s something that the only way they’re ever going to know is to put me through another scan and see, but by the time I got to the hospital and the optometrist came in with her microscope, saw the metal, got it out — a portion of it, she couldn’t get the rust out she said — it would need a couple more days for that to harden to get out. Once the metal came out, I felt a lot better. We went home, the CT scan showed that I was perfectly clear on the sinus part of it, which was very, very good news I thought I was going to have to do something about that as well so I was perfectly good with the sinuses, it was just the metal that was overlooked. She had a pretty fancy piece of machine that she was looking through to find it. Long story short, it won’t keep me from going to the infield care center at any point. I wanted to race of course, no matter what. I felt like if I was going to be a liability I would have pulled myself during the race, but there’s protocols that we have to go through and it’s not just my safety that has got to be taken into account. We’re racing around other guys and that’s one of the fastest tracks we go to. What if I caused a wreck early on? I don’t need to be a liability out there and obviously with this new format we hardly lost anything in points. We still have a great shot to win a lot of races from here until the Chase so take the safe approach. We found out the problem, it was too late by the time we found it, but the staff that looked after me last weekend was the same staff that was in the hospital with me for a few days in California last year. They go above and beyond and it’s unfair to put it on, whether it be the infield care center or nurses that work with NASCAR — put them under responsibility for not finding it because it took a specialist to find it. There were two separate, perfectly good doctors in the infield care center at California and both of them could not see it. It took someone who was in the business of eyes to find it. It sucks because I wish I would have got it out on Saturday then I would have been fine for Sunday, but it’s part of it and it’s just bad luck. The track hates me.”
Have you been in the headlines more for health reasons this past year?
“It’s frustrating because I’m in great health. I’ll play all these drivers in any sport they want to play. I’m in good health, just literally last year I got in a wreck and I hit the wall at the worst possible spot that broke my back and this year something, somehow flies into my eye in the middle of a race weekend and two really good doctors — it was so small that they couldn’t see it. It is just really bad luck on that part of it. As far as the health stuff, I feel better than I ever have. Pilates has changed my life as far as my back in concerned. My back is no longer an issue — knock on wood. Everything — you hate getting attention for those reasons, but a lot of it is because we haven’t won a whole lot over these last year and a half. We’re going to change that this weekend. We’re getting headlines for reasons we don’t like and you hate to have them for that reason, 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. We just have to get over these little things that are bothering us. I felt like we had the best car of our teammates for Sunday’s race in California and just never got to get in the car to show it. The two Hendrick cars obviously looked very strong and they were going to be tough to beat, but I was looking forward to that race for a really, really long time. Obviously, going to have to wait one more, year again.”
Was it difficult to accept that you couldn’t race on Sunday?
“The toughest part was obviously I had an idea that the answer was going to be no. We never really asked, ‘Hey, am I okay to race?’ until we had the meeting with (Mike) Helton (NASCAR president) and the other guys. I knew what the answer was going to be. I wasn’t able to leave the care center and of course I was getting the idea that they told me to prepare a backup plan just in case. When I talked to Darian (Grubb, crew chief) I told him that I don’t know what’s going on, but they said to prepare someone else to run. I called of course Helton and said, ‘Come rescue me out of this infield care center and get me out of here and let me race.’ We had a good meeting with him and J.D. (Gibbs, Joe Gibbs Racing president) and the two doctors and myself in a room going through all the possibilities. They felt like the symptoms that I showed at the time, they said if this was three in the morning we would tell you to go to the hospital right now, right now. Not in an hour from now, go right now because we don’t know if this is something tumor — any of those things. We don’t know what it is, whether the infection got to the back of the eyeball and was affecting my brain because I was getting those headaches along with it. They were looking out for me and you can’t fault any group of people. It’s hard for me to be selfish saying that I should be able to get in the car no matter what when they’re trying to look out for my best interest.”
Does the new points system allow for a missed race due to a medical condition?
“It does. This was a topic of discussion for all the teams and drivers in the off season was whether having a child was going to be an exception or not — they determined no that wasn’t. But with this new concussion policy with the baseline test that you now have and some of the hits that we’re taking — cars are going faster than they’ve ever gone, the hits are a little bit harder than they used to be. You’ve got to build in some kind of protective bubble over the drivers when they have an incident that possibly they have to sit out because of a concussion and things like that. That would be the most likely reason a driver would have to sit out in my opinion would be a concussion. That’s going to be the big one going forward. It’s hard to say you can’t be part of the championship picture because of something that’s relatively out of your control — your health. In other sporting events you can miss events and be fine and it won’t affect what you’ve got going on as far as the championship is concerned. I think it was time to update our sport in the direction that it’s in now where we’re not all just going on vacation, you’re not allowed to do that. When something out of the blue, Mike Helton explained it to me greatly right as soon as we got out of that office — this is why we built this system in place is for things like this, your seasons not over. He says, ‘Go win next weekend, everything is going to be fine.’ So we’ll try to do our best to do that.”
Will drivers still feel comfortable going to the infield care center if they aren’t feeling well race morning?
“Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think any driver — I hope this doesn’t keep drivers from going to the infield care center and making sure they’re 100 percent before any event. Drivers are going to drive through being sick and under the flu and things like that — you can do that. You can’t mess with your vision. That’s all we’ve got, that what we have to go off of when we’re driving these cars. Especially at a race track like that where you can’t be compromised and mine was. Hopefully, the drivers still will trust in the process that is out there for them.”
How important is a good starting spot at Martinsville?
“It’s going to be important. There’s about four to five pit stalls at this race track that are prime real estate I guess you could say that you want to be in that group. Obviously, the number one is the best pit stall, but there’s others that are on timing lines that really are beneficial. We’ve seen in the past guys come from the back and win. I think that the cream is going to rise to the top at this race track no matter what. You’re same five to six guys are going to be in the mix no matter where they start. While it is critical to get one of those pit stalls that would be the only disadvantage. I’d say if we somehow qualified 30th the only disadvantage we would have would be on pit road. We could make up that position in 500 laps on the race track. Although it’s important, it’s not totally critical here.”
When was the rust removed from your eye?
“So we went back on Monday to go over the sinus stuff and a lot of reason there was nothing said by me or anyone else after all this was going on because we still had to clear up whether sinuses were related or not. Although at the hospital they found the metal and I felt better instantly, that doesn’t mean that was the whole problem. We had to go through two more days of testing in Charlotte to realize that the sinus part was okay. They got everything out on Monday. Basically around the metal it built a rust ring so there was like a ring of rust around it. They needed time for that to harden for them to pick that out. Once he got that out I felt better yet. That’s why nothing was said for a few days is because I don’t want to be speaking out of line and not knowing exactly what I’m talking about until I know exactly what the problem was. We didn’t know that until Wednesday when we finally got cleared and they ran all the tests again to make sure that we were 100 percent. I don’t need to really justify a lot to a lot of people. I think the important people are NASCAR, my team guys and things like that. My health is my business and so I will give you all the facts and let you sift through them and do the best you can with them, but really I didn’t know everything that went on until Tuesday to Wednesday.”
Was your reputation impacted by this situation?
“I’m going to try not to get mad. 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 — moron to risk that. I have a daughter that I have to provide 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. I go to Bobcats games, I got out and hang out with friends out in public — I don’t stay tucked in my motorhome, 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. I don’t know why people question who I am outside the race track. I worked too hard to get here for one to throw it all away. If anyone has any questions about that, they can ask me directly. People who assume, people like that. I’ll tell you, but it bothers me that my character is questioned. People think that there’s some kind of conspiracy because like I said, I worked too hard to get here and it’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was five years old. There’s not one thing in the world that I would do to switch positions with anyone in the world because I just feel that lucky. I’m done justifying and defending myself on those things — I’m not going to let those people drag me down. 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. 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. I’m done.”
Do you have room for another Martinsville grandfather clock?
“I’m going to win it this weekend, I promise.”
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR