Denny Hamlin says he still hopes to be in the Chase come September despite his knee surgery and announced that Casey Mears will be his relief driver for coming races.
The Joe Gibbs racer tore the anterior cruciate ligament on his left knee while playing basketball in January and on Saturday his team announced he will have surgery on Monday, following Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville.
The 29-year-old revealed that, since his initial ligament injury, the condition on his knee has worsened, with a cracked meniscus adding to the tearing of his ACL. He said that has forced him to get surgery earlier than he had planned.
"When I did initially tear my ACL the rest of my knee was completely fine, there was nothing else wrong with it," said Hamlin. "Now it seems like we've cracked a meniscus and if that goes, then what will happen is the knee will completely lock up and then you have to get it done. So it's best for me to limit my time off the racecar by doing it on an off week. Just take that week, take my lumps that first week and then get back in the car just as soon as I can. For me it was more fearing long term and if something further goes wrong. With not having it there's nothing else around the knee to support it. I've done further damage and then I noticed after the Bristol race that it's as achy as it has been so far and it hurt pretty good. The best thing is to get it over with."
Hamlin said he has not taken any medication to kill the pain in his knee and that he has not suffered more this weekend at Martinsville, NASCAR's toughest oval on brakes, where he ruled out having any problems on Sunday.
The JGR driver does not believe his recovery from surgery will dictate whether or not he will be able to be in the Chase this year and says his poor results in the first five races would probably have to do more with him eventually missing the cut of the top 12 for the first time in his Sprint Cup career.
He expects the next few races to be about damage limitation.
"If we come up short come September when it comes Chase time and we don't get in, then it has to do with a lot of performance over the course of the year," Hamlin said. "It's not about Phoenix, Texas, Richmond and all those tracks. It's this first five races that we struggled to get good finishes. But right now I feel like our team is on an upswing, we're going to come here on Sunday, we're going to play in to win and we'll see what happens after that."
Hamlin announced that Mears will be on standby for him at coming races starting from Phoenix, although he stated that he plans to start every event. Mears could step in for Hamlin during an early caution period at any of the events and Hamlin would still be credited with the result as per NASCAR rules.
Mears had been competing for start-up team Keyed Up Motorsports, but had only managed to qualify once at Bristol. He will now focus on being Hamlin's relief driver.
"We're going to have Casey Mears standing by for a few weeks and whatnot, just to see how things go. We felt like he was our best option," said Hamlin. "Probably for Phoenix I will to have to use my right foot to brake versus left foot, which changes things quite a bit. But I'll try doing things just like I normally do and just see what limits me at that point. Whether the best thing to do is let [Mears] practice, qualify, all that stuff in the car, and then me race it, I don't know what's the best option. Not until we get close to it.
"The recovery, we're going to be 12 days out of it when we start practice on Friday [at Phoenix]. I'll just see how it goes."
There is an increasing chance of rain for Sunday's race at Martinsville, but Hamlin said that if the race gets postponed until Monday he will get his surgery done on Tuesday.