After a severe back injury at Fontana, Denny Hamlin was told by doctors that he would miss the next five to six races. Hamlin had hoped to return at Richmond, a track where he has an impressive record. The doctors, however, would not clear him to return to competition.
He did receive better news this week and it was decided he would make his return at Talladega Superspeedway. The plan was for Hamlin to start the race and Brian Vickers would replace him during the first caution. Vickers drives full time for the Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) team in the Nationwide Series and also drives part time for Michael Waltrip Racing in the Sprint Cup Series, this weekend, however, Michael Waltrip is in the car.
JGR installed a special roof hatch to permit Hamlin to quickly exit the car without risk of injuring his back further or causing him additional pain. The hatch worked very well. Vickers was able to get in the car during the first yellow on lap 24 without losing a lap.
Hamlin stayed at the back of the pack to make sure he stayed out of trouble. After he exited the car Hamlin thanked all the drivers who helped him out by dropping to the rear and keeping him close to the lead pack by drafting with him saying, “… I got to thank all the drivers – Montoya and Stewart and Michael and Stenhouse that really sacrificed the first part of the race for me and I can’t thank them enough. It means a lot as a driver to have your peers that have got your back like that.”
Asked if it was hard knowing that he would have to drop the back and then get out of the car, Hamlin responded, “I was enjoying it more than anything because it gave me something to do today. I knew in my head that I wasn’t going to be competing today. I wasn’t going to be in the middle of the pack trying to make passes. It was all about just going through the motions and getting the process of making a comeback – getting that started.”
Many fans are anxious to see if he can still make the Chase for the championship even after missing five races. Coming into Talladega, Hamlin was sitting in 28th place in the standings, 126 points out 10th – the final Chase spot. If he can’t make it to 10th, he would have to make it into the top 20 and have enough wins to secure a wildcard spot.
Hamlin says he is – “…definitely looking forward to getting back to full competition next week.” He will make his return at the Bojangles Southern 500 next week at Darlington Raceway.