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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Lewis Hamilton sees off Vettel challenge to take Australian GP pole

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Lewis Hamilton saw off challenges from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to pick up the first Formula 1 pole position of the year in Australian Grand Prix qualifying.

Hamilton topped the timesheets on Friday to give Mercedes hope of continuing its impressive qualifying form from 2016, when it took 20 poles from 21 races.

However, Ferrari looked poised to strike and take its first pole position since Singapore 2015 as Vettel led final practice, setting up a close battle in qualifying.

Hamilton took provisional pole with his first Q3 run, going three-tenths faster than Vettel, and was able to find a further three-tenths on his second run to make pole all but his.

Vettel refused to back down, producing a rapid final sector to gain plenty of time on Hamilton, but it was not enough to deny the Briton his 62nd F1 pole.

On his Mercedes debut, Bottas put in an impressive display to take third on the grid, finishing three-tenths off Hamilton’s time. Fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen ended the session fourth in the second Ferrari.

Max Verstappen led Red Bull’s charge in fifth, while Haas driver Romain Grosjean put in a stellar display to take sixth on the grid. Felipe Massa will start his comeback race from seventh ahead of the Toro Rosso pair of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat.

Local favorite Daniel Ricciardo’s difficult home race weekend continued as he crashed out at Turn 14, wrecking the rear of his Red Bull RB13. While Ricciardo was physically unharmed, the Australian’s ego was left bruised as he was resigned to starting the race from 10th on the grid.

Sporting is bright pink livery, Force India failed to light up the gloomy conditions in Melbourne as it suffered a double-elimination in Q2. Sergio Perez qualified 11th, while rookie teammate Esteban Ocon will make his first start in Australia from 14th on the grid. Nico Hulkenberg saw his 13-race streak of Q3 appearances ended as he could only qualify P12.

One of the biggest talking points from the early part of qualifying was Fernando Alonso’s titanic effort to put his McLaren-Honda 13th on the grid. Following a tough winter marred by reliability issues, Alonso dragged his car through to Q2 and did “all he could”, yet the issues faced by the team meant no Q3 berth was forthcoming.

Sauber enjoyed an impressive start to the year as Marcus Ericsson made it through to Q2, eventually qualifying 15th. Last-minute substitute Antonio Giovinazzi was poised to also get out of Q1 on debut, only for a mistake on his final lap to leave him 16th overall.

Haas driver Kevin Magnussen failed to get in a late lap, leaving him 17th on the grid for his first race with the American team, while a fuel flow issue meant Stoffel Vandoorne could only qualify 18th for McLaren.

Lance Stroll’s baptism of fire in F1 continued as he finished 2.9 seconds off the pace in P19 for Williams, while Renault’s Jolyon Palmer was made to pay for his lack of track time, rounding out the grid in P20.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Lance Stroll set for Australia grid penalty after gearbox change

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Formula 1 rookie Lance Stroll has been forced into a gearbox change ahead of qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix following a crash in final practice at Albert Park.

Stroll lost the back-end of his Williams FW40 car coming out of Turn 10, hitting the wall and causing damage to the right-hand side and rear of his chassis in the process.

The crash brought out a red flag that ultimately caused FP3 to end early, with Stroll returning to the pit lane on the back of a marshal’s moped.

After bringing the car back to the pit lane, Williams confirmed that it would have to change Stroll’s gearbox ahead of qualifying, which will trigger a five-place grid penalty for the Canadian.

Stroll’s crash comes after a mixed pre-season program that saw him suffer three shunts in the opening week in Barcelona, raising concerns about his readiness for F1.

Stroll bounced back in the second week of running, racking up plenty of mileage in Williams’ 2017 car to back up his extensive private test program in the team’s 2014-spec F1 car last year.

At just 18 years old, Stroll is set to become the second-youngest F1 driver on Sunday, trailing only Red Bull’s Max Verstappen whose first start came at the age of 17 in 2015.

Vettel, Ferrari strke back to dominate final Australia F1 practice

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Sebastian Vettel made up for a disappointing Friday by dominating proceedings in the final Formula 1 practice session ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix for Ferrari.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites for victory following an impressive pre-season that saw Ferrari finish as the fastest team, concerning defending champion outfit Mercedes.

Ferrari’s winter pace was nowhere to be found during FP1 and FP2 on Friday in Melbourne, though, as Lewis Hamilton moved half a second clear at the front of the pack for Mercedes.

Both Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen insisted they had more pace in hand for qualifying and the race, and both drivers were able to display that in FP3 as times tumbled.

Vettel ran high up the order early on before turning in a lap of 1:23.380, marking the fastest time of the weekend so far, 0.240 seconds faster than Hamilton’s benchmark from Friday.

Both Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas fitted a set of ultrasoft tires in a bid to try and catch Vettel at the top, yet neither could get close.

Bottas finished the session P2, 0.479 seconds shy of Vettel’s time, while Hamilton was a further 0.011 seconds back in third place, leaving Mercedes’ advantage looking precarious ahead of qualifying.

Mercedes was unable to put together a late ultra-soft run after the session was red flagged with 10 minutes to go following a crash for Lance Stroll.

Stroll lost the rear-end of his Williams FW40 coming through the end of the second sector, damaging the right-hand side of his car and bringing his session to a premature end.

The session was otherwise devoid of major incident, the other stoppage coming courtesy of Kimi Raikkonen, although the Finn was able to get his car back going swiftly.

Raikkonen ended the session fourth-fastest in the second Ferrari, six-tenths off Vettel at the top, while Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg rounded out the top five.

Red Bull struggled for pace throughout the session, with Daniel Ricciardo finising up sixth ahead of Haas’ Romain Grosjean and the Toro Rosso pair of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat. Haas’ Kevin Magnussen rounded out the top 10.

Times are below, and qualifying is at 2 a.m. ET, live on NBCSN.

Sauber’s Wehrlein rules himself out, Giovinazzi to sub at Australian GP

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After Friday’s practice sessions and after having been originally cleared to race for the Australian Grand Prix, it has been determined that Sauber F1 Team’s Pascal Wehrlein will not be able to continue in the rest of the weekend. He opted to rule himself out due to his fitness level.

“My fitness level is not as it should be for a full race distance because of my training deficit. I explained the situation to the team yesterday evening. Therefore, the Sauber F1 Team has decided not to take any risks. It is a pity, but the best decision for the team,” Wehrlein said in a release.

Wehrlein missed the opening test at Barcelona before resuming for the second test. He’d had a back injury sustained in an accident at the Race of Champions event in Miami in January.

As for that opening test, Antonio Giovinazzi, the Italian Ferrari reserve driver, will fill in for the German. This was meant to be Wehrlein’s first race with Sauber; instead, it will be Giovinazzi’s Grand Prix debut.

“We have great respect of Pascal’s openness and professionalism. This decision was definitely not an easy one for him, it underlines his qualities as a team player. The focus is now on his fitness level, and in such a situation we do not take any unnecessary risks. Pascal will be in China as planned,” team principal Monisha Kaltenborn added.

This isn’t the first injury fill-in to race in F1 in recent years; twice, Fernando Alonso has missed a race each of the last two years.

After a testing crash at Barcelona in 2015, Kevin Magnussen filled in in Alonso’s McLaren Honda, although was unable to start the race with a mechanical before the lights even went out. Meanwhile Alonso missed last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix after his accident at Melbourne, which opened the door for Stoffel Vandoorne to make his debut, and the Belgian promptly scored a point.

Giovinazzi has no prior experience at the Albert Park circuit and so will have to learn the track during FP3, which runs at 11 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports App. Qualifying takes place at 2 a.m. ET on NBCSN.

Here’s pics and notes from NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton, who is on the ground in Melbourne: