Last week the NASCAR world was sent into a frenzy when news broke that Denny Hamlin had torn the ACL in his left knee playing basketball. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver and avid basketball fan had surgery on his right knee in December after finishing fourth in the Chase. Hamlin also hurt his hip playing hoops in May 2008. Now, this injury has many wondering if Hamlin will be able to overcome this off-season setback.

In today’s NASCAR, the biggest threats facing drivers are not the same as they were 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Back then, a hard hit into the outside wall could send you to the hospital, end your career or something more serious.
Bobby Allison’s illustrious career came to an end in 1988 because of a hard crash at Pocono. Kyle Petty was sidelined for 11 weeks in 1991 after breaking his leg in a wreck at Talladega. Steve Park’s career was never the same after a vicious wreck in Atlanta in 1998. Then from 2000-2001 NASCAR lost the likes of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the track.

With the development and implementation of the newer, safer car it seems the biggest dangers facing today’s NASCAR drivers are not found on the track, but by what they do in their spare time. Since 2004, nine drivers have gotten themselves in trouble away from NASCAR’s careful watch and felt the consequences of their actions.

During an American Le Mans Series practice session at the Infineon Raceway in 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost control of his car and backed into the retaining wall. Groggy from the hit, Earnhardt was quickly engulfed in flames as the car burst into fire. Somehow climbing from the fiery wreckage, the NASCAR star was taken to the University of California-Davis Medical Center where he was treated for burns to his face and legs. Since the accident, Earnhardt Jr. has only three victories and has made the Chase only once.

Earnhardt Jr. was not alone when it came to injuries sustained in non-NASCAR related races. Fresh off his 2005 series championship, Tony Stewart flipped his car while running a qualifying race for the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in January of 2006. The crash left Stewart with a broken wrist and bruised ribs. The defending champion was able to recover before the start of the 2006 season.

While these two incidents caused setbacks, and in Earnhardt’s case perhaps long-lasting effects, they were at least done on the track. Hamlin, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Michael Waltrip, A.J. Allmendinger, Carl Edwards, and, yes, even Jimmie Johnson were not so lucky.

In 2005, defending Cup Series champion Kurt Busch was charged with reckless driving in Phoenix. Pulled over for going 60 mph in a 45 mph zone, the officer smelled alcohol on Busch’s breath and took him into custody after the driver refused to perform a field sobriety test. Earlier that week, Busch was released from Roush Racing. Headed to Penske Racing the next year, after this incident Jack Roush took Busch out of the car with two races to go in the year.

The off-track trouble was not limited to the elder Busch brother. While racing for Hendrick Motorsports in 2006, the then 20-year-old Kyle Busch was cited for reckless driving in Richmond, Va. Unlike his older brother, speeding nor alcohol were involved, but Kyle’s reckless driving charge could have resulted in up to a year in jail or a $2,500 fine, along with a suspension of his driver’s license. Also unlike his brother, Kyle cooperated with police.

As if Michael Waltrip’s on-track struggles were not enough in 2007, a car crash less than a mile from his home added insult to injury. Waltrip reportedly struck a telephone pole and then rolled his SUV after falling asleep behind the wheel. Climbing from the car with minor cuts and bruises, Waltrip walked home instead of reporting the incident to the authorities. Once the vehicle was discovered, police were able to track the car back to Waltrip, who was charged with leaving the scene of the accident. Unfortunately for Waltrip, this was not his only encounter with the police after a traffic incident.

Last year Waltrip’s off-track troubles continued when a motorcyclist struck his Lexus. The two-time Daytona 500 winner made a sudden U-turn around a concrete barrier in front of the other driver, who was treated for only minor injuries. The officer at the scene suspected Waltrip of being under the influence and issued a Breathalyzer test. Waltrip blew a .06 – below the legal limit of .08 in North Carolina – but was charged with failing to yield.

Continuing the trend of NASCAR drivers getting in trouble with the law, AJ Allmendinger was pulled over last October and taken into custody by Mooresville, N.C., police for driving under the influence. Allmendinger was pulled over while on his way home and failed a field sobriety test, along with blowing a .08 on his Breathalyzer test. NASCAR placed Allmendinger on probation for the remainder of the year and Richard Petty Motorsports issued a $10,000 fine to their driver, which was paid to charity. To make a public example of yet another DUI charge in the garage, NASCAR required Allmendinger to take a Breathalyzer test prior to getting on the track the following weekend at Talladega.

While these off the track incidents are extremely dangerous for the driver or anyone else on the road at the time, they are also embarrassing for everyone involved. Yet, last year Carl Edwards perhaps took the cake for the most embarrassing off-track incident that directly influenced his year. One of the most physically fit drivers in the NASCAR garage, Edwards was forced to race with a fractured right foot after a rough game of Frisbee – that’s right, Frisbee. Although he had not lived up to expectations in 2009, the injury proved to be a further setback as he scored only three top-10s in the final 12 races of the season.

In December 2006, Jimmie Johnson was enjoying his first off-season as the Cup Series champion. Taking part in a celebrity golf tournament in Florida, Johnson fell out of a golf cart and broke his left wrist. The injury kept Johnson out of the car for four weeks, but luckily for him it did not prevent him from taking part in preseason testing at Daytona. While Johnson contended the driver of the golf cart took a “sharp turn” and he fell out because he was not holding on tight enough, reports surfaced that Johnson was atop the golf cart at the time of the incident.

These days it is the danger of racing in other series, driving while intoxicated and even something as simple as playing basketball and Frisbee that can leave these athletes in pain and/or in trouble. This is nothing new however and is something that should be taken extremely serious.

Rob Moroso lost his life and claimed the life of another driver after crashing his passenger car in Mooresville, N.C. two days after his 22nd birthday in 1990. The Cup Series rookie was driving nearly 40 mph above the speed limit and it was later determined his blood alcohol level was .22 – two times the legal limit.
Tim Richmond’s lifestyle and carefree mentality in the 1980s caught him up in the nationwide AIDS epidemic. With such a bright future ahead of him, Richmond’s potential behind the wheel was cut short by the illness and his eventual death.

NASCAR has spent the last 10 years making the sport as safe as possible for the competitors on the track. Requiring the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device, implementing the use of SAFER barriers and the development of the new car have kept drivers safe and arguably saved lives. NASCAR understands it is up to the drivers to take care of themselves while away from the track, perhaps the drivers should take it a little more seriously as well.

Related links:
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Four-timers’ club: Johnson vs. Gordon
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He came, he drove, he almost won
For sale: One ruined career
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