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UPDATED: Denny Hamlin explains what happened at Fontana

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UPDATE: Denny Hamlin met with members of the media after Friday’s Sprint Cup practice session at Martinsville Speedway. In that session, Hamlin set track records for speed and elapsed time, becoming the first driver in track history to eclipse 100 mph in a lap, as well as under 19 seconds.

Here’s excerpts of Hamlin’s explanation of what happened last Sunday at Fontana, followed by what he said earlier today in an interview with Fox Sports.

“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.

“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 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. 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 (for the race).

“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 to get a CT scan.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“… 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.”

When asked if he felt his reputation with fellow drivers, fans and the media may have been affected, Hamlin responded:

“I’m going to try not to get mad. 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 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 to throw it all away. If anyone has any questions about that, they can ask me directly. People who assume, people like that … but it bothers me that my character is questioned.

“People think that there’s some kind of conspiracy. … I’m done justifying and defending myself on those things. I’m not going to let those people drag me down. … 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.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

(Below is the original story from Friday morning before Hamlin spoke to the media:)

Denny Hamlin appeared in public and made his first comments since missing last Sunday’s race in California, showing up for practice and qualifying Friday at Martinsville Speedway, site of this Sunday’s STP 500.

A four-time winner at Martinsville, Hamlin was asked by Fox Sports’ Krista Voda how much pain he was in at Fontana.

“Enough,” Hamlin quipped before adding, “It was very agitated. The biggest problem was the metal had been in there for three days, so it began to rust.

“Once it started to rust, then it started to infect. That’s essentially what caused the major problem. But once we got it all out, it was good. It’s been a good week. Now we need to just come here to Martinsville and win this weekend.”

The agitation apparently didn’t impact Hamlin, as he broke both ends of the Martinsville track record with a lap of 18.932 seconds at 100.021 mph in the final two minutes of Friday afternoon’s pre-qualifying practice session.

Still, his interview with Voda failed to address several still lingering issues:

* How did doctors believe the metal sliver got into his eye in the first place?

* Where it’s believed the metal sliver originated from?

* Why did initial reports about his condition indicate he was suffering from a sinus infection that affected his vision, causing him to pull out of the race less than an hour before the green flag start?

Hamlin is due to meet with NASCAR media later Friday afternoon. (We will update this story if Hamlin makes additional revelations).

During the Fox interview, Hamlin wore large and dark sunglasses, most likely some form of protective measure, even though it was very cloudy and overcast.

Voda asked Hamlin about the sunglasses and “if there is any irritation or after-effects.”

“Yeah, it’ll probably be this way for a little while,” Hamlin said, “The doctor described it kind of like there’s a divot in the lens of my eyes, from where they had to dig it out.

“It’ll go away. It’s slightly agitated. Really, today is the only day it’s been agitated. It’s been fine the past three days. It’s just a small issue that grew into a big one and I hated that we had to miss last week.”

Even though he missed the race at Fontana, being treated at a nearby hospital while the event was being run (fill-in driver Sam Hornish Jr. finished 17th in Hamlin’s place), Hamlin still remains 11th in the Sprint Cup standings.

“With the new NASCAR format, this gives us an opportunity where all we have to do is work this weekend,” Hamlin said. “We have to win, I feel like we’re going to win, and it’ll all be in the past.”

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IndyCar: Delayed Texas race leaves Gabby Chaves in a good position

Gabby Chaves is ready to go in the resumption of the IndyCar race at Texas this Saturday.
(Photo: IndyCar/Joe Skibinski)
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Some people look at the glass half-empty, others look at it half-full.

And then there’s Verizon IndyCar Series driver Gabby Chaves – he’s looking at the glass totally full, as he’s back in action for the first time since Iowa on July 10.

As IndyCar returns to Texas Motor Speedway this Saturday to complete the race that was suspended June 12 due to weather, Chaves put the 2 ½ month delay in one of the best perspectives we’ve seen or heard this week.

While some drivers aren’t necessarily happy that the series had to go back to TMS for a re-do of sorts – picking up on Lap 72 when the scheduled 248-lap race restarts – it feels a lot longer to Chaves.

“I went into this race at 22 years old and I’ll finish it at 23, so hopefully that will be some good luck,” Chaves said.

So, the driver of the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda of Dale Coyne Racing will make his seventh start of the season. His two best showings thus far have been close to top-10s: 12th and 13th in both Belle Isle races.

In his most recent race, at Iowa, he finished 17th.

But Chaves has high hopes for the return to Texas – even if he’s a year older since the last time he was there (birthday was July 7). If you see him licking his lips, it’s because he’s thirsty for a win and if things go the way he hopes, that’s a definite possibility.

When the race was red-flagged after 71 laps on June 12 (after the original scheduled race on June 11 was, alas, rained out), Chaves was running sixth in the 22-car field.

So, that’s where he’ll start when the race resumes this Saturday. And even though he’s endured a lengthy hiatus, just like every one of the other 21 drivers in the race, Chaves is ready to potentially save his best for last – the last oval race of the season, that is.

“We’re definitely in a position where we can actually go for the win,” Chaves said. “So, I’m very excited and very much looking forward to finishing out the oval calendar on a very high note for the team and myself.

“It’s always tricky to get back in the car, especially that we will only have 10 minutes to get sorted and get running before going straight into the race.

“You have to be committed and trust in the abilities that you have and trust in what the team gives you and that’s what I’ll be doing.”

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Mark Miles checks in after IndyCar’s 2017 schedule release

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Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, the head of INDYCAR’s parent company, checked in with reporters during a teleconference to discuss the release of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. He also checked in on NASCAR AMERICA this evening on NBCSN with Krista Voda (video above).

Here’s some of the highlights:

On getting the schedule out so soon

“Well, we thought it was important. You know, if you’re committed to making the foundation of a current year the bulk of the schedule the next year, then we didn’t see any reason we couldn’t do it, and I think it’s important from the point of view of the next step, which is careful tailoring, crafting of the television schedule. But also for the tracks; here happily we are in August, and we’re announcing a schedule, and they have a year to prepare.

“We kind of put the stake in the ground that we’d get this out in August, and I think we’re still in August, so we’re delighted to have met the goal.”

On further schedule growth

“Some of you are aware of and have written about it, and there were options to be sure, lots at the start, narrowed to some finalists, and we think there will be even more for next year.

“Our philosophy about growth is careful, managed growth where we add to fill in gaps on the schedule, and those to me looking at next year, we still believe there may be an international opportunity at the very beginning of the year to be abroad, and that will do lots of things for us if we can find a great opportunity for ’18 in February. And then there may be one more opportunity to add during what we currently have kind of staked out as the heart of the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule in North America.

“We think about all the factors from the balance we want to try to keep in terms of the type of racing, which we’ve already talked about, in terms of urban versus more park-like as we have now in so many of our races, Midwest versus other regions of the country. We’re pretty Midwest based, and I think there’s an appetite west, northwest, east or southeast in this country, urban versus more rural.

“So all those things go into it, and I think we just look at the options on a case-by-case basis and try to make the best calls.

“Fundamentally, the most important thing, irrespective of what kind of track and where it is in the country or the world, we want races like we have for the most part where the race is an event that captures the imagination of the community.”

On whether 2017 and 2018 schedules could have been released together

“I loved the idea of putting out the ’17 and ’18 calendars at the same time, and we were really close to doing it, and that’s exemplified by the fact that I’ve already told you that I expect everybody that’s on the calendar for ’17 to be on the calendar for ’18.  We do think there’s still some prospects that need a little more time to be fully developed for both international and other domestic opportunities for ’18. So we decided not to go.

“But saying all that, I don’t think we have to wait until August of ’17 to release the ’18 calendar. I can’t give you the date on which we’ll do it, but I do expect that it’ll be even earlier before ’18 than it was before ’17.”

On why Phoenix shifted from the start of April to the end of April

“When Phoenix came on for this year, we knew that in ’17 Phoenix would host the NCAA Final Four, and we agreed with them that it’s better to avoid that in that community. That’s a lot of fan choice and a lot of focus from the local media.

“That’s the reason that it changed from ’16 to ’17. I think that makes sense. And I think the schedule still works fine for our competitors.

“We are looking at what that might look like in ’18, and whether it stays more or less where it is or whether it goes back to — I guess we can’t call it the traditional date since it’s been one year, but the ’16 date, and that’s a decision we’ll make obviously in the context of putting out the ’18 calendar.”

On Auto Club Speedway, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Portland

“I think we talked a lot about Fontana about a year or so ago where their needs in terms of climate and time of day and even the sunset, which affects our drivers’ ability to be safe and run a great race, which affects the time of the race, which affects broadcasts in eastern time. It’s all related, so that one we just couldn’t sort out.

“[Mazda Raceway] Laguna Seca, interesting track, race history. We are kind of in that part of the world if you consider Sonoma northern Cal along with Laguna. Sonoma seems to be kind of solidifying a place for us as the season finale, which we love, and I think our fans and our stakeholders appreciate.

“Portland has a great history and is a part of — further north. That’s not northern Cal, and is an interesting region for us. So I don’t know. I don’t know that you’ve heard the end of the possibilities for Portland.”

On the broadcast partners and start times components

“I think [releasing the calendar now] it’s important from the point of view of the next step, which is careful tailoring, crafting of the television schedule.

“The other thing is the further out we get, the harder it is to really fine-tune the television broadcast schedule [for 2018], and that matters to us. As you know, we’ve made real progress with our broadcast partners in finding optimal broadcast times, which help us attract more viewers. We want to continue that focus. The further out you get, the harder it is to pick the exact date when you know a little less about their other programming, so we’ll take a little more time.

“Obviously as I think I may have mentioned before, we have to work with our broadcast partners to find the right balance between the show, the event on-site for the fans who buy tickets and come out, and the fans who will tune in on television. One of the things that we’ve found is that it’s better for race fans I think generally if we can minimize overlaps with NASCAR coverage. I’m not in any way defensive about saying that. We think there are a meaningful number of fans of both series, and we’d like for all of them to be able to watch both kinds of racing.

“It’s really helpful in the second half of the season that the same broadcasters [on NBC] are programming both NASCAR and IndyCar, so it’s in everybody’s interest to maximize the windows for both, and I think that’s happened, and you’ve probably seen kind of the add-up of that, the significant reduction in the number of races where there are overlapping telecasts and the number of hours. It’s much, much less than it was even three years ago. I think that helps all race fans.

“And ABC has worked with us, as well. You’re always trying to minimize key conflicts in the sports horizon. NBC’s objective or one of them is to be the motorsports platform, much as they’ve done in golf, and they have grown as a cable provider, and they’ve grown their audience for motorsports, and certainly they’ve been helpful in the growth of our television audience.”

On Stephen Starks’, VP of Promoter Relations, role in the process

“Stephen has brought great, fresh thinking about all this. You know, together we can focus on the few things we want to do better, and timeliness was part of it, the things we’ve been talking about, so he does deserve huge props for driving this process inside IndyCar, being I think a great resource to those who wanted to be considered to join the series and extending the agreements for those who have been on and now will be on with certainty longer. He spent a little bit of time with us and our legal department, so he understands that side of the business, and now he’s really gone to town, and I think the future is bright not just in terms of the schedule-making process, but our ambition is to add more value to the promoters that we have.

“When I look at other leagues, the NBA has a great team-services group, for example, and they’re able to share best practices in a serious way that adds to the value the league provides to their franchises.

“When one of them figures out something that helps them promote ticket sales and get ticket sales in earlier, they all know about it, and I think we can, under Stephen’s leadership, add that kind of value to our promoters, as well.

“I can see his head swelling. We may have a hard time getting him on the plane on the way back.”

Pagenaud ready to get back on the horse and leave Pocono crash in dust

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(Photo: IndyCar/Bret Kelley)
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IndyCar racing has a lot of similarities with horse racing. They are both built on speed and elapsed time.

And let’s not forget the most obvious: horsepower.

So, it’s not too much of a stretch to look at the plight of current Verizon IndyCar Series points leader Simon Pagenaud.

Like a jockey or a cowboy, Pagenaud was thrown from his mount this past Monday when he was involved in a solo wreck during the weather-delayed ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.

The wreck was Pagenaud’s first DNF of the season, a season that has had him in the points lead since the second race (Phoenix) and also compiled four wins and seven podium finishes in the first 13 races.

At the same time, Penske Racing teammate Will Power significantly closed what had been a 58-point lead by Pagenaud coming into Pocono to just a 20-point edge over Power, who not only won the race, but has won four of the last six (and finished runner-up in the other two).

MORE: Pocono provides latest pendulum swing between Power and Pagenaud

But, once again like a jockey or cowboy who has been thrown from his horse, Pagenaud has picked himself up, dusted himself off and is prepared to do battle with his teammate and roughly a handful of others who are still mathematically eligible to win the 2016 IndyCar championship.

Pagenaud has built his career on looking forward and forgetting what’s in the past. And that’s exactly his philosophy about leaving Pocono and preparing for Saturday night’s resumed Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway.

“Pocono didn’t go very well, but that happens,” Pagenaud says. “I wish it hadn’t, but we have to move on and put it behind us.

“The Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevy will (re)start 15th, but that’s not indicative of the car we had or will have.”

As for the tightened margin between himself and Power, Pagenaud has been in this kind of horserace plenty of times in his career.

He knows what to expect in the next three races. He saw how Juan Pablo Montoya topped the standings last season for 15 straight races, only to lose it in the season finale to Scott Dixon.

Pagenaud hasn’t come this far to let the lead slip through his reins. Whether it’s himself, Power or perhaps one of the others still in striking distance, Pagenaud is well aware that it’s anyone’s championship still to win.

Obviously, he hopes it will ultimately be his.

“There’s a lot of racing left,” Pagenaud said. “It’s going to be an exciting race. We don’t lose sight of the big picture, but that’s not the strategy.

“We got to where we are by attacking and being on the offensive. That’s not going to change. We’ll focus on winning races.”

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DiZinno: IndyCar’s 2017 schedule provides clear long-term road map

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Photo: IndyCar
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I thought the same things as you when I saw the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule for 2017 (and to a near extent, 2018) released on Thursday, August 25.

Thought number one: The IndyCar schedule? In August?!?

Thought number two: Where’s the next big street race or international race?

Thought number three: There can’t be… date equity… can there?

For once, going with the more traditional route of keeping the same 16 races as in 2016 and adding another oval (yes, selfishly, I wish it was Milwaukee, but Gateway’s been pushing hard for this for years) is a brilliant masterstroke for IndyCar, because it isn’t about the negativity… or the question marks.

Every year, it’s seemed IndyCar’s schedule would be one of the last ones out, and there’d always be that one or two races you’d look at with a skeptical eye.

Then you’d see the ‘ol infamous asterisk top right of the last letter with the guide at the bottom confirming that asterisk meant, “To be confirmed.”

None of that goes on now with the 2017 schedule, and with Hulman &. Co. CEO Mark Miles confirming Thursday all events are also locked into 2018, IndyCar has a clearly defined road map and product platform for its events for the first time in years.

“We thought it was important to get it out now,” Miles said during a teleconference. “If you’re committed to making the bulk of schedule the next year, it’s important for the next step, which is careful tailoring and crafting of the television schedule.

“But we’re in August; we’re announcing a schedule and they have a year to prepare. Every promoter would relish the chance to sell next year’s tickets at this year’s race.

“For promoters, for fans, for our broadcasters, for our teams as they prepare, and this plus the test schedule that will come out… the sooner the better.

“We said we’d get this out in August… we’re still in August.”

This is a far cry from years past and the litany of races that have been on again, off again, or dropped over the last few years.

NOLA, Fontana, Milwaukee, Houston, Sao Paulo, Baltimore, Edmonton, Loudon, Motegi, Kentucky and Las Vegas have all dropped off just since 2011, and then add in that Boston, another Brazil and China races were canceled before they ever occurred.

Suddenly it seems as though IndyCar has rediscovered itself from a scheduling standpoint; returns to tracks where the series left but then came back make a greater impact than first-time or other venues where the history isn’t quite there.

Phoenix came back after more than a decade, Road America in nearly a decade and Watkins Glen will come back for the first time in six years in a little over a week. Road America was incredibly well-received, Phoenix was positive and Watkins Glen has generated early rave reviews.

At-track attendance has been an interesting talking point this year and Graham Rahal has mentioned to me on numerous occasions it’s been up, and he and other drivers have taken notice. INDYCAR confirmed it has at six events in its 2017 schedule release.

Knowing when events are from a scheduling standpoint and knowing there’s not the year-on-year risk of them falling off helps fans better plan their schedules.

It also helps from an overall business perspective; companies are in the process of finalizing their marketing budgets in August and this allows teams to go out and hustle if they still can at a much earlier date.

Miles also strongly suggested the 2018 schedule – given all tracks for this year are on board – will be out even earlier next year.

“I loved the idea of releasing ’17 and ’18 at the same time, and we were very close to doing that,” Miles said. “Some prospects need to develop for international and other domestic opportunities for ’18. But I don’t think we have to wait of August ’17 to release the ’18 calendar. I’d expect it even earlier before ’18, than it was before ’17.”

Credit INDYCAR and Stephen Starks, VP of Promoter Relations; additionally, credit all the track promoters.

“He has brought great fresh thinking to [the process],” Miles said of Starks. “We can focus on the few things we want to do better. He does deserve huge props for driving this process inside INDYCAR.”

And then there’s the Jay Frye factor. Frye’s presence in INDYCAR is generally, if not exclusively, regarded as a net positive thus far.

Even though he’s been moved from the commercial onto the operational side of the business now as President of Competition and Operations, his high approval rating in the paddock cannot be understated in terms of how INDYCAR’s schedule has evolved to a more solid state rather than the fluid one it’s been in the years previous.

And he says so with a smile, too. He and I exchanged a good laugh at Pocono last weekend when I asked about the schedule and he replied, “And hey, not only are we gonna have a schedule, but we’ll actually run all the races we’re scheduled to!”

We both laughed, but the fact such a line is a laughing matter speaks to how chaotic the IndyCar schedule has been over the last several years.

For once, it appears that the future IndyCar schedules are no laughing matter indeed.