Hamlin Back Behind the Wheel
By: Jeff Wackerlin - @JWackerlin on May 3, 2013 | 4:28 P.M. EST
Hamlin got back behind the wheel during practice today at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo: Jeff Wackerlin)
TALLADEGA, Ala. - Denny Hamlin returned behind the wheel for the first time since March 24 on Friday during practice for Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver received medical clearance this week as well as approval from NASCAR to return to action after his last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway and subsequent back injury.
The FedEx Toyota has been outfitted with the optional roof hatch teams are allowed to implement to assist Hamlin's exit from the car should he choose to hand over driving duties to Brian Vickers Sunday after starting the race.
"There’s no discomfort inside the car at all," Hamlin said. "Really, for me, the most discomfort I have is getting out of the car. That’s why we’re choosing to go through the roof versus the window. It’s much easier on me, and really any kind of twisting we can keep out of myself will be good. Really, inside the race car I feel just like I did six, seven weeks ago. Excited about this weekend and finally getting back going again.”
The JGR team did complete a driver change during Friday's practice session with the exchange taking 1 minute, 6 seconds.
"I think that we'll be plenty good if the caution comes out to come out and persevere a lap," Hamlin said.
Hamlin took part in Friday's opening practice turning 17 laps around the 2.66-mile speedway and came away feeling positive as well as optimistic for his return to racing action even if it is in a limited capacity at Talladega.
"I am the most unenthusiastic person when it comes to superspeedway practice, racing much less practicing - but last night it was tough to sleep knowing that I was going to get back in the car for the first time," Hamlin said. "This is an exciting time and obviously if it wasn’t for my crew chief (Darian Grubb), I would’ve stayed out there until I ran out of gas.
"The excitement will really be big when we get to Darlington next week and we’re able to participate in all full activities, which I can now. I am just choosing not to in the race."
But Hamlin insist circumstances will dictate the plan come Sunday and his mind is not yet set on how things will play out.
"As far as deciding when I get out it will be my decision, ultimately," Hamlin said. "If I don’t get unbuckled, then I don’t get unbuckled. I don’t want to run a race similar to like I did here in the fall just kind of sitting in the back, just waiting on the big wreck and then driving around it. I’d rather give my team an honest shot at a win by putting Brian in and letting him go up there and be aggressive because you’re not going to win these races without being aggressive and I don’t want to be aggressive right now.”
Hamlin had hoped to comeback last weekend at Richmond International Raceway. However, his medical staff decided to hold him out another week in his recovery process. While he understands the potential risk of re-injuring himself in a potential accident Sunday, Hamlin is comfortable in the approach the team has planned.
"It wasn’t a full consensus for Richmond, so we decided to err on the safe side," Hamlin said. "And, knowing basically what we were going to do this weekend was going to be the equivalent of a quarterback basically hiking the ball and taking a knee we were going to very much minimize our risks this weekend of reinjuring ourselves, which gives us one more week to then heal.
“As far as the first lap, early-on wreck it definitely can happen. We’ve seen it here at this race track on lap one and we’ve seen it on the last lap. I’m obviously going to put myself in what I believe is a safe position. Obviously you can’t help things like blown tires or whatever that could possibly happen, but like I said I think the equivalency of our risks this weekend will be taking a knee.”
As for next week's re-scan of his back, Hamlin said it's standard procedure.
"It was a scheduled scan," Hamlin said. "The chance of us getting rescanned and it coming up negative to where we can’t race is little to zero. Like I said, it would have to mean that I regressed, which is almost impossible when you have a wound.”
Hamlin is 28th in the standings coming into Talladega, 126 points behind 10th and 71 points behind 20th. He needs to be inside the top 20 to be considered for a Chase Wild Card berth and is confident about the opportunity to race, and win his way into the playoffs.
“What I’m most excited about is the challenge ahead of us,” Hamlin said. “We are going to have to make a big, big run these next 17 weeks if we are going to be part of the post-season. I’m excited about the challenge. I think that our Chase has got to start right now. We have to perform each week like it is a Chase race and do everything we can to get wins because if we don't win it really doesn’t matter."