Denny Hamlin's return to the track was short-lived, but the Joe Gibbs Racing driver accrued some points he desperately needed and set himself up for a full-time return to his No. 11 Toyota next week.
Hamlin started seventh in the Aaron's 499, but quickly dropped to the back of the pack to log some laps without being in any danger of getting caught in a wreck.
When the first caution flag was waved on Lap 24, Hamlin steered his car into his pit box, emerged from the roof hatch installed for the race and watched Brian Vickers take off as his substitute driver.
Vickers would soon get caught up in a massive wreck and wound up finishing 34th -- not the day Hamlin and his team were hoping for, but better than putting up a goose egg in the points standings as he had done since his injury -- a broken vertebra in his lower back -- was revealed following a last-lap crash on March 24 at Auto Club Speedway.
All in all, it was a tough day for the Coca-Cola Racing Family. No drivers placed in the top 20; Tony Stewart was the highest at 27th.
A roundup on the six drivers in the Coca-Cola Racing Family:
Tony Stewart (No. 14)
Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet
Recap: Stewart started 25th and finished 27th at Talladega, for his eighth consecutive race outside the top 10. He was collected in the multi-car accident in Lap 44 but managed to stay in the race till the bitter end. He finished five laps down but avoided a DNF.
His standing: Stewart is 22nd in the standings with 224 points.
Outlook: Stewart was in position to pounce if leader Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel in last year's race at Darlington; the No. 48 sped away to victory, however, and Stewart comforted himself with a third-place showing. It was Stewart's second third-place finish in the past four years at a track -- which is a career-best finish there -- and the driver was pleased with the progress of his Stewart-Haas Racing fleet following the 2012 race.
Danica Patrick (No. 10)
Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet
Recap: Patrick started 23rd for the Aaron's 499 and hopes were high that she could duplicate her top-10 finish at Daytona on another restrictor-plate track in Talladega. But Patrick was collected in the multi-car wreck on Lap 183 and finished 33rd.
Quotable: "Honestly, it is just the way it goes. People forcing the issue. It is late in the race, I get it. But that's what causes these accidents that makes speedway racing speedway racing."
Her standing: Patrick is 27th in the standings with 180 points.
Outlook: An unexpected, lengthy green-flag run of 172 laps to start the race last year allowed Patrick to go through three consecutive green-flag pit stops and get comfortable on Darlington's tricky oval. In her first foray to Darlington, Patrick finished 31st, six laps off the lead.
Ryan Newman (No. 39)
Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet
Recap: Newman started fifth for the Aaron's 499 and led two laps before he was involved in the second "Big One" to hit, a multi-car accident in Lap 183. Newman finished 32nd.
Quotable: "That's no way to end a race. Our car was much better than that. That's just poor judgment in restarting the race, poor judgment ... I mean; you got what you wanted, but poor judgment and running in the dark and running in the rain. That's it, thank you."
His standing: Newman is 17th in the standings with 242 points.
Outlook: Newman's numbers at Darlington are gaudy, but he enters this year's Bojangles' Southern 500 coming off his worst finish at the track since 2008. Newman tangled with Kurt Busch late in the 2012 event after the No. 39 car hit Busch as he was spinning. The bump wasn't what angered Newman, though. The No. 39 team thought Busch drove dangerously close into their pit box on the ensuing pit stop. NASCAR agreed and ultimately put Busch on probation. Before last year's 23rd-place finish, Newman had finished in the top 10 for three consecutive years. Since 2005, he has five top-fives and six top-10s in eight races. During that same time, he has started fourth or better five times.
Denny Hamlin (No. 11)
Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
Recap: Hamlin returned for the first time since his back was injured on the final lap of the March 24 Auto Club 400. As planned he was in the car until the first caution of the Aaron's 499, which came in Lap 23. Brian Vickers replaced Hamlin, who earned the driver points, but didn't last long, getting collected in a multicar accident less than 15 laps after the swap. Hamlin finished 34th.
Quotable: "The exchange went great. Really, that was about as smooth as it's went for us." ... "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."
His standing: Hamlin is 31st in the standings with 155 points.
Outlook: "The Lady in Black" has been good to Hamlin, who is expected to make his full-time return to the No. 11 Saturday night. Hamlin has three consecutive top-10s at the track -- the worst finish during that span is sixth -- and finished second last year for the second time in his career. His one victory at Darlington came in 2010; six of his seven starts have resulted in top-10s, and his only non top-10 was 13th in 2009.
Joey Logano (No. 22)
Penske Racing, Ford
Recap: Logano was in position for a breakthrough at the 2.66-mile track in Talladega, Ala. The driver hooked up with teammate Brad Keselowski to power up into the top four before a red-flag delay due to weather. Unfortunately for the No. 22, the race went on. Logano's engine began to malfunction on Lap 144; his team took the car to the garage and, just like that, Logano's day was over. He finished in 35th place.
Quotable: "We communicated about it during the race and decided that it was a gauge that was broke, but eventually it blew up. I don't know. We're thinking maybe an air pocket somehow got in the water system, but it doesn't make sense. We'll look into it and we'll come up with the answers, but it's a bummer when you're sitting third when it was raining and now you don't finish the race."
His standing: Logano is 18th in the standings with 237 points.
Outlook: Like so many young drivers, Logano has done his fair share of brushing on Darlington's historic wall. In 2010, he had two solo accidents and finished 27th. In 2011, he and Marcos Ambrose wrecked, and Logano finished 52 laps down. But the 22-year-old seemed to learn from that experience last season and ran a clean race to finish 10th.
Greg Biffle (No. 16)
Roush Fenway Racing, Ford
Recap: Biffle started 17th for the Aaron's 499 and had moved up when he was caught in the first of two big wrecks that hit on Sunday. After Kyle Busch made contact with Kasey Kahne to set off a chain reaction, Biffle's car slid sideways and was ridden toward the wall by Marcos Ambrose's car. Biffle's damage was significant, and he finished 36th.
Quotable: "I just saw them wrecking above me. I thought about going to the left, I had plenty of room and probably should have, but I didn't. I just stayed straight and moved down all I could and it wasn't enough. They got me in the right-rear and turned me the wrong way up into the wall, a pretty hard hit, but that's all you can do is hang on when stuff like that happens."
His standing: Biffle is 10th in the standings with 280 points.
Outlook: Biffle started from the pole for the second time in his career at Darlington, but he couldn't collect his third win at the track. It looked like he might for a while as the No. 16 led twice for 74 laps. But Biffle slipped down the standings in the late stages and finished 12th. That continued Biffle's four-year trend of finishing outside the top 10 one year after finishing inside it; for example, Biffle was eighth in 2009 and 2011, but 22nd in 2010 and 12th in 2012.
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