ShareThis Page

Paulk: Hamlin's passion could prove risky

| Saturday, May 4, 2013, 11:48 p.m.

For years, I have watched athletes from every sport deal with the haunting inevitability of reaching the end of their careers.

I saw it when an aging ex-heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes, reluctantly took a bow shortly after getting pummeled by a then-invincible Mike Tyson. I watched with angst as Brad Daugherty lumbered up and down the court during the final days of his career with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Holmes and Daugherty possessed that precious gift of having a Herculean heart. They carried on past their prime, in part, because of their immeasurable passions to compete.

Incredibly, we've seen this far more often in auto racing. We've witnessed the aged, battered and bruised take on wicked, unpredictable speedways in cars too fast for them to handle.

I often wondered what A.J. Foyt felt compelled to prove past age 50. I always figured winning the Indianapolis 500 four times was enough to cement his place in Brickyard lore.

For Foyt, it was never about his age. It was about winning at all cost. It's why he climbed into his cars no matter the depth of his pain or the risk he imposed on others while racing with the kind of injuries that often impaired both his skills and instincts.

Foyt kept on racing because it was in his blood. For other athletes — including young NFL players desperately seeking a roster spot — they sometimes compete with potentially debilitating injuries mostly to secure their jobs.

On Sunday, Denny Hamlin will risk it all when he takes the wheel at Talladega Superspeedway in the Aaron's 499.

In an incredulous move that defies logic, Hamlin, 32, will start the race on perhaps the most dangerous racetrack on the Sprint Cup circuit only five weeks removed from having the kind of back surgery that forced Daugherty into retirement.

What is he thinking?

First, he's thinking he needs to get back into championship contention before it's too late. But he isn't thinking long term — that one bad turn at Talladega could cause irreparable damage to his back, thus jeopardize his career.

I can't believe that Joe Gibbs, who watched Joe Theismann's career come to a sudden end after Lawrence Taylor nearly severed his leg, has allowed Hamlin to make that call. The coach needs to call an audible, and leave Brian Vickers behind the wheel.

That won't happen, of course. Gibbs will never attempt to defuse Hamlin's passion to compete, mostly because it's an invaluable intangible that separates the Foyts from those who only aspire to be like them.

Even though Hamlin has decided on a cautious strategy of racing from the rear before giving way to Vickers at the first caution, this is a far too risky move. If Hamlin was racing at Atlanta, Charlotte or Texas, I could understand it.

But this is Talladega, where the Big One happens at least twice — sometimes three times — on the 2.66-mile tri-oval.

There are few escape routes to jettison a race car from the inevitable crashes that often involve nearly a third of the 43-car field.

I know Hamlin is a competitor. And I know the itch to compete is too intense not to scratch. But this isn't a risk worth taking.

At some point, Hamlin will face the inevitable reality that faces all professional athletes. At 32, there's plenty of racing left in him. There's no need to risk his future for an already lost season.

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib. Listen to the Auto Racing Show with Paulk every Friday from 9 to 10 a.m. on TribLive Radio.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.