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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 rpaulk@tribweb.com or Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib. Listen to the Auto Racing Show with Paulk every Friday from 9 to 10 a.m. on TribLive Radio.

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