TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Denny Hamlin was in no hurry to climb out his No. 11 Toyota. But when the caution flag appeared for the first time on Lap 23 of Sunday's Aaron's 499, Hamlin knew his day's work had come to an end.
Injured in a crash on the final lap of the March 24 Auto Club 400, Hamlin returned to the seat of his race car at Talladega Superspeedway after missing four consecutive races with a lower back injury. But the risk of compounding the injury at Talladega, where multicar crashes and high speeds are the norm, was too great to risk staying in the car any longer than necessary. Because he started the race, Hamlin would therefore receive whatever driver points his replacement driver, in this case Brian Vickers, would earn.
Riding near the back of the 43-car pack (he was 38th and cruising after 15 laps of the scheduled 188-lap race), Hamlin made his way to pit road after Trevor Bayne's engine issue brought out the yellow flag on lap 24.
Once in his pit box, crewmen focused solely on helping Hamlin exit the car and Vickers get in. Once the swap was complete, Vickers was told to "go ahead and roll" by crew chief Darian Grubb to make sure the team didn't fall a lap down. He returned to pit road the following lap to allow the team to service the car.
When the race resumed under green, Vickers was 39th on the board.
"The (driver) exchange went great," Hamlin said afterward. "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."
Hamlin spoke briefly with team owner Joe Gibbs after exiting the car.
Vickers' stint didn't last long before he found himself in the middle of a multicar accident. After marching through the field, and less than 15 laps after the swap, contact between Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne at the front of the field occurred, sweeping up another 14 cars, including Vickers.
Hamlin had originally hoped to return a week earlier, at Richmond, until doctors failed to give him clearance to compete.
It was at Richmond, Hamlin said, that Tony Stewart approached him and mentioned working together at Talladega to allow Hamlin to stay in the draft but run in the back where he might avoid any problems.
"Me and Tony for whatever reason ? 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 (Joe) Gibbs (Racing)," Hamlin said. "We've got a great relationship and he's had my back really for the last three years."
Hamlin said he expects to be in the car next weekend at Darlington.
Sixth before his crash at ACS, Hamlin entered Sunday's race at Talladega 28th in the standings. His only chance at possibly qualifying for the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup would be to climb into the top 20 in points and also win enough races to qualify for one of the two wild-card spots available.
"This is going to be the start of everything, so anything that Brian gets us for points today is strictly a bonus," Hamlin said, "and we're going to start next week in Darlington with our hair on fire."
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