MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Denny Hamlin stood atop his hauler Friday at Martinsville Speedway and watched as Mark Martin wheeled the No. 11 Toyota around the track during Sprint Cup practice. That was Hamlin's car, the one he drove for 264 consecutive Cup races since late 2005.
His streak will not reach 265.
Hamlin will miss today's STP Gas Booster 500 with a compression fracture in his back. He was hurt March 24 in a last-lap crash with Joey Logano at Fontana, Calif., and might not return until May.
Hamlin is not the first NASCAR driver to miss time this year with an injury. Michael Annett has been out since he broke and dislocated his sternum in a crash during a Nationwide series race in February at Daytona.
In October, Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular driver, had a concussion that kept him out of the No. 88 Chevrolet for two races.
And last spring, Nationwide driver Eric McClure missed six weeks with a concussion from a hard crash at Talladega.
Before that, NASCAR went years without injuries serious enough to sideline drivers. The crashes in the past year are enough to renew questions about safety.
"This is the first time really we've seen a handful of drivers miss time for injuries," Hamlin said. "I think the wrecks are different than they used to be. We're running faster speeds than what we ever have.
"Even though the safety innovations are better, mine, I think, was just a perfect storm of angle of the track, no SAFER barrier, things like that. Really, anyone in my position probably would have gotten the same injury."
NASCAR officials are investigating Hamlin's accident and others with engineers from the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
"I don't think we can at all definitively make that statement that all of the sudden there's some cause to all of these that are occurring right now," said Ron Faller, the facility's interim director. "I don't even agree necessarily that we have a significant number of injuries. You've got to keep in mind there are risks associated with oval racing."
NASCAR wants drivers to be aggressive, even to bump fenders to race for the win as Hamlin and Logano did. So work continues on safety improvements, a focus since a series of deaths in the early 2000s.
No driver has died in NASCAR's top three series since Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. That is NASCAR's longest stretch without a fatality.
Among the most critical changes was the installation of Steel and Foam Energy Reduction, or SAFER, beginning in 2002.
"You really don't appreciate the SAFER barriers as much until you don't hit one," Hamlin said Wednesday. "It would have probably changed my outcome had it been a SAFER barrier there."
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition, said it would be impractical for the sport to mandate covering all walls surrounding each track. And SAFER barriers are not a panacea; Annett was injured though his car hit a soft wall.
. Fast facts
Sprint Cup points
After five of 36 races. The top 10 in points plus two wild cards after 26 races make the Chase for the Championship.
Driver Pts. Back
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 199—
Brad Keselowski 187 12
Jimmie Johnson 183 16
Carl Edwards 164 35
Greg Biffle 164 35
Kyle Busch 163 36
Kasey Kahne 159 40
Paul Menard 154 45
Joey Logano 146 53
Denny Hamlin 145 54
STP Gas Booster 500, 1 p.m., Martinsville (Va.) Speedway TV/radio: Ch. 13; 102.5-FM