Mark Martin is the surprise choice of Joe Gibbs Racing to take over the race seat of the team's #11 Cup car for the next few weeks starting with Martinsville Speedway on April 7, while regular driver Denny Hamlin is sidelined with a compression fracture in his lower back following a crash at the end of Sunday's race at Fontana.
"We are really pleased to have someone of the character and calibre of Mark Martin to fill in while Denny is out," said JGR team president JD Gibbs on Thursday evening. "Mark's career speaks for itself and our team knows it will have the opportunity to compete for a win every week."
Martin has competed in NASCAR at the top level for 31 years ever since his début in 1981: his 858 race include 40 wins, 56 pole positions, 271 top fives and 449 top tens. He's also recorded 49 career wins in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, and has one start in that series for JGR last March at Las Vegas, in which he managed second place.
"A lot goes into a decision like this," continued Gibbs. "We've been real fortunate to have never been in this situation with the need to find someone to fill in for an injured driver."
"I'm happy to have this opportunity to help out JGR, FedEx and Denny," said Martin. "Hopefully I can keep those guys up front and compete for wins while Denny heals up."
Hamlin is estimated to be out of racing for the next six weeks, which covers five Cup races as the series takes a week off over Easter, but that depends on how quick his recovery actually proves to be.
"Obviously we're not exactly sure how long that is going to take," acknowledged Gibbs. "Really, we don't know how long it will take," he'd told reporters earlier in the day. "It's kind of up to Denny's body. He's been through it before. He's a tough dude. He's fighting to get back in that car as fast as he can."
Martin currently races a partial season of 26 races per year with the Michael Waltrip Racing squad, which like JGR is a Toyota-powered operation. Martin shares the #55 car with Brian Vickers and Michael Waltrip, and Vickers is expected to step up his involvement and helm the #55 while Martin is on secondment. That would suggest Vickers is very much in line to take over that car on a full-time basis when Martin finally decides to call time on his illustrious career.
There's a slight question mark over whether Martin will drive at Talladega on May 5 if Hamlin is still out: Martin specifically opted not to include the superspeedway in his MWR programme. Waltrip himself is due to drive the #55 that week, so Vickers could be moved over to the #11 for that outing unless Hamlin has returned by then.