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2013 Talladega NASCAR: Hamlin happy with brief return

6 May 2013

Denny Hamlin was back in NASCAR Sprint Cup action this weekend for the first time since his accident at Fontana the week before Easter that left him with a compression fracture of the lower back.

Hamlin started the Sunday afternoon race at Talladega Superspeedway, but then dropped to the back of the pack while waiting for the first opportunity presented itself during a round of pit stops under caution he was scrambling through the roof of the car and handing the wheel over to stand-by driver Brian Vickers.

There was nothing wrong - it was the game plan for the #11 Joe Gibbs Racing plan going into the weekend, a strategy that credits Hamlin with any points won by the ca for the rest of the day but also making sure that Hamlin doesn't exacerbate his spinal injury by trying a full return to racing too soon.

"I was enjoying it more than anything because it gave me something to do today," said Hamlin, who insisted that he hadn't found is frustrating to return to the car only to have to drop to the rear straight away. "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.

"This is the first week of a comeback," he added. "This is going to be the start of everything so anything that Brian gets us for points today is strictly a
bonus and we're going to start next week in Darlington with our hairs on fire."

The driver change strategy was possible at Talladega because the 2.66-mile length of the track allowed Hamlin to get out of the car and Vickers to take over under caution without going a lap down in the process, which is what would have happened at a short track like Richmond International Raceway.

"The exchange went great. Really, that was about as smooth as it's went for us," said the 32-year-old. "That was about the quickest that I was able to get out so everything went well. I had a checklist in the car with things that I needed to do before I got out to switch over for the next driver. Everything really went seamless and painless."

"In Talladega you've got four minutes and we could do it in under 60 seconds if we had to," added Vickers. "I think everyone was pretty calm about it. It went really smooth. Everybody did a great job, everybody did their part. It went as smooth as any one we did. We came out of the pits with a fast race car, drove all of the way to the top ten."

Unfortunately Vickers was then caught up in the lap 44 accident sparked by contact between Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, meaning that the #11 only picked up five points for 34th place - a disappointingly limited return given all the time and effort that had gone into the manoeuvre. But at least Hamlin was safely out of the car and away from harm's way by then meaning that the wreck didn't set back his recovery. Hamlin was first on hand when the battered #11 limped its way to the garage, so that he could see the damage and check that Vickers was unhurt.

Given the uncertainty of stock car racing, Hamlin hadn't been sure how long he'd be in the car when the green flag came out: the caution could have come out after a couple of laps, or after 50. But Hamlin said that he wasn't concerned about when the changeover would materialise.

"Even if we had to pit for fuel we would've gone ahead and done that and just waited for the first caution whether it had been lap 20 or 120," he insisted. We were going to do it at a caution. Luckily we wanted to be five to six seconds behind the pack and we were. Everything kind of worked out ideally how you would want it to."

Hamlin was particularly appreciative of help and support from other drivers, not just those in his JGR team, which had made his brief cameo at Talladega possible on Sunday. Michael Waltrip, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya were among those to pitch in during those early laps.

"They really sacrificed the first part of the race for me and I can't thank them enough," he said. "It means a lot as a driver to have your peers have your back like that."

The biggest help of all came from Tony Stewart, a former JGR driver before he set up his own race team, who dropped back with Hamlin to give him some drafting support and ensure the #11 didn't get so isolated that he risked going off the lead lap before the first caution.

"Tony actually approached me at my charity event last weekend and said I want to work with you depending on what your plan is for Talladega," Hamlin revealed. "Me and Tony, for whatever reason - when we stopped becoming teammates, we started becoming teammates. We've been closer off the race track and on the race track now that he's with Stewart-Haas than ever when we were with Gibbs. We've got a great relationship and he's had my back really for the last three years."

Hamlin was certainly relieved to be back in action again. Although he's attended the four Cup races since his accident - Martinsville, Texas, Kansas and Richmond - he admitted that he hadn't enjoyed watching on helplessly from the sidelines while first mark Martin and latterly Vickers sat in for him in the car.

"I was enjoying it more than anything because it gave me something to do today," he said of finally being back behind the wheel. "For me the toughest part of every weekend has been watching the cars go off the starting grid and on to the race track for the green flag. I didn't have to endure that pain this time around, but it is just tough now just having to watch especially this type of racing where it's so circumstantial."

Even for someone with his NASCAR experience, Hamlin was still a little caught out by the experience of racing at Talladega after his five-week lay-off.

"I'm driving around there and never thought anything of it before but the speed kind of catches you off guard a little bit, especially when you haven't done it for a month-plus," he admitted. "It was all different to me, but it still, no matter what my involvement today was, I at least had something that I could do and something that I could contribute to the race team."

And after his limited runs in Friday practice and in the race on Sunday together with his scramble out of the specially installed roof hatch of the #11, how was Hamlin feeling at the end of it all?

"I feel good," he said. "Every week I feel a lot better and really this is the best I've felt physically in, gosh, months since I felt this good. So I'm definitely looking forward to going back to full competition next week."


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