Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin has been cleared to start Sunday's Aaron's 499 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway, his first race outing since suffering a compression fracture in the final lap of the race at Fontana the week before Easter.
JGR announced on Thursday night that Hamlin had received medical clearance to return to on-track activity beginning this weekend. He's missed four races since his injury, with Mark Martin and Brian Vickers substituting at the wheel of the #11 car in the meantime; the original prognosis was that he would be out for five races over the course of six weeks.
"I can not wait to get back in car," Hamlin posted on Twitter after the announcement was made public. "The smell of fuel and tires Ahhh."
NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said that Hamlin will need to practice Friday afternoon and qualify the car Saturday in order to make the race. Hamlin duly went on to complete just 16 laps in Friday afternoon practice, but forecast rain on Saturday might make qualifying a wash-out.
However there is still a question of how long Hamlin would actually stay in the car on Sunday, with the driver himself having already raised the suggestion that he could start the race, drop to the relative safety of the back of the pack, and then hand over to Vickers at the first round of pit stops.
The 2.66-mile length of the track means that a driver change can take place under caution without going off the lead lap, which isn't possible at a shorter track. The plan would mean Hamlin gets credited with any driver points that Vickers goes on to win in the car, but ensures that Hamlin's back is not put under any premature stress that might risk a setback in his recovery.
"They all came to the conclusion they were happy with me starting Talladega and getting out when it's a safe time to get out," Hamlin had told the media before last week's race at Richmond, at which he wasn't allowed to compete by the doctors. "[So] we'll start our process at Talladega and then rescan again and try to go to Darlington."
JGR hasn't confirmed that this is still the plan for Hamlin, and the team said that strategy would be determined at the track.
Hamlin had previously suggested that if he still wasn't back in the car full-time by Darlington, he might consider writing off the 2013 season and elect to have surgery on his back to take car of any lingering problems from the back as well as a long-term chronic condition involving 'bulging discs' in his spine that are believed to be a genetic condition. Otherwise, Hamlin will look to schedule this over the winter off-season period at the end of the year.