The big story right now is Denny Hamlin's injury. We are seeing a lot of discussion out there wondering whether his 2010 start will be just as good as his 2009 ending. Some of the PR from the Joe Gibbs camp is that this will be no problem.
Let's compare some recent examples of NASCAR injuries.
In 2009, Carl Edwards broke his right foot in September. In the following twelve races after the injury (the last twelve of 2009), he had three Top Tens, and a total of ZERO Top Fives. His average finish was 19th.
But in the twelve races BEFORE the injury, he had five Top Fives, six Top Tens, and finished all twelve of those races on the lead lap in the top 20, for an average finish of 10th.
Clearly his injury made a difference, as those two sets of a dozen races were like two totally different drivers. An injured Carl Edwards is like Casey Mears on a good day. Huge drop.
But you could say Edwards's injury was much more severe from a driving point of view than Hamlin's ACL tear in his left knee. Very different than Edwards' broken right foot - but still, a lot of people at that time thought Edwards wouldn't suffer from the injury. The results suggest an immediate drop in performance.
Another notable injury was Jimmie Johnson, who before the 2007 season started broke his wrist by falling off the roof of a golf cart. After the first dozen races in 2007, he had four wins and was second in points, eventually winning the title that year. I guess you can't complain about that.
Based on such good results, Jimmie Johnson came back before the 2009 season with a gash in his left hand. He didn't start the season nearly as strong as in 2007, but still came back to win the title. Again, no complaints here.
We also saw Jeff Gordon's back issues come up this year, but he held strong for a third place chase finish, though you kept wondering if he could have been closer to winning the title had he not been injured.
In 2006 we saw defending champion Tony Stewart's nasty injury cause him to miss the Chase, even though in those final ten races he had extraordinary performance.
The lesson here is if you want to get injured, do it before the season starts, so you have time to recover. Injuries that happen in the summer or later could spell doom, since there just isn't enough time to recover. Hamlin might have a slow start to the year, but it shouldn't affect his overall standings assuming he qualifies for the Chase.
(All Left Turns contributor Dale Watermill is the creator of the Watermill Score and the FLOPPER Award and edits the racing statistics blog 36 Races. E-mail him at email@example.com.)
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