KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Kansas Speedway hasn’t been kind to championship contenders this season.
Just weeks after Dale Earnhardt Jr. sustained a concussion during a tire test on the track’s repaved surface, Denny Hamlin slammed into the wall at 202 mph during a day of testing Thursday. The hit was so hard that he was encouraged by NASCAR to seek an evaluation in the infield care center even after driving back to the garage.
Hamlin was part of a full-field test on Kansas’ new asphalt when he clipped the rear of his No. 11 Toyota on the wall entering the first turn. The car shot toward the apron and Hamlin said he over-corrected, sending it hurtling into the wall.
Hamlin parked the battered car in the garage area and spent a couple minutes looking it over with his team. NASCAR officials also examined the car, considered the severity of the impact and then encouraged him to get checked out by medical staff.
It was the first time Hamlin could remember NASCAR requesting him to visit the care center.
“Obviously the severity of it, and the speeds we were running, it was a wise thing to do anyway,” he said. “Just bell-rung, typical hard-hit, ring-your-bell kind of thing. You get jarred around, you feel a little out of it at first. Everything came back OK.”
It was the second day of testing ahead of Sunday’s race, the sixth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and took out the primary car of one of the leading contenders.
“Little disappointed in losing that car. That car was pretty quick,” said Hamlin, who’s third in the standings, 15 points behind leader Brad Keselowski and seven back of Jimmie Johnson.
The car was hardly Hamlin’s biggest concern, though.
He said that Earnhardt’s decision to step out of his car in the midst of the Chase after two concussions in a six-week span didn’t have any bearing on his visit to the care center, but Hamlin did acknowledge the issue of driver safety has been pushed to the forefront.
Earnhardt did not seek treatment for the first concussion, suffered in an Aug. 29 crash at Kansas. He sought treatment following a 25-car crash in the Oct. 7 race at Talladega that left him with a lingering headache, and has been replaced in the No. 88 car by Regan Smith.
“I don’t know if you’re going to have drivers voluntarily step out of the car,” Hamlin said. “That’ll be the continued challenge of it, no matter how you feel or anything like that. You’re just not going to want to step out of your car.”
Hamlin returned to the track in his backup car less than an hour after being evaluated, and his lap of 184.622 mph was 12th fastest. Smith had the quickest lap of 186.143, while 44 drivers who tested were faster than the track record of 180.856 set by Matt Kenseth in 2005.
“It’s fast. It’s a typical new racetrack,” Hamlin said. “Goodyear brought a good tire and it’s sticking to the racetrack, so speeds will be up. I’m slightly concerned with the groove and how we’re going to move around. That’s really my only concern.”
Hamlin, who won the April race at Kansas, was testing the same car he drove to victory at New Hampshire last month. But his backup car isn’t shabby: It’s the primary car that Hamlin drove at Chicago, where he would have finished higher than 16th in the Chase opener except that he ran out of gas when his fueler didn’t get the tank full on the final stop.
“We don’t have any backup cars,” crew chief Darian Grubb said. “They’re all primaries.”
Clint Bowyer, who’s fourth in the Chase, was pulling onto the track during the first hour of testing Thursday when he saw Hamlin slide up the new variable banking and into the wall.
“He was sideways way, way early, and I was trying to figure out what the hell was going on, and then I saw him get on the apron and he was in trouble, man,” Bowyer said. “He hit hard.”
Hamlin compared the crash to one he had in 2008 at Talladega, when he blew his right front tire and shot up the track and into the wall. He spent the night in the hospital after complaining of a headache, and said he was diagnosed with a slight concussion.
“It was the first time I really had some dizziness,” Hamlin said of Thursday’s crash. “Usually I’m sore or your jaw hurts from clenching your jaw. This is the first time I really got dizzy.”
Hamlin was reevaluated about an hour after his wreck before he was cleared to resume testing, but he wasn’t sure whether the medical staff was being any more thorough than usual.
“They were just trying to be safe and asking me how I felt, and I was honest with them and I said I was a little dizzy,” Hamlin said. “The medical staff can’t do their job unless I tell them exactly what’s going on. They might as well not even be here.”