Denny Hamlin cannot remember a time when he's had to watch someone else wheel his race car.
"I'm sure it's going to be very, very tough," said the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who is expected to miss at least five races with a fractured vertebra in his back suffered in a crash March 24. "Especially being there and seeing it in person will be particularly tough, knowing that you should be on the other side of that wall."
That will be the case Sunday when Hamlin ventures to Martinsville Speedway, but not to drive the car. Because of the injury -- a compression fracture of the L1 vertebra, which for now requires him to wear a brace that helps keep his spine aligned -- his viewpoint will be not his customary one behind the steering wheel, but atop the pit box as Mark Martin pilots the No. 11 Toyota at the half-mile track.
Hamlin isn't expected to return until the May 11 event at Darlington Raceway, although he holds out hope of a quicker recovery and a comeback two weeks sooner at Richmond International Raceway, his hometown track. That depends on how fast he heals, which won't be known until his next scan in a few weeks. In the meantime, Martin will drive his No. 11 at Martinsville, and JGR NASCAR Nationwide Series teammate Brian Vickers will take over at Texas Motor Speedway the following week and remain in the seat until Hamlin returns.
Sunday's Sprint Cup Series event promises to be a difficult one for Hamlin, who has won four times at Martinsville. But he's not going to sit and watch -- crew chief Darian Grubb will hand him a headset and have Hamlin observe everything the No. 11 team is doing, in an attempt to make it better down the road.
"I want him to actually learn and look at our team from the outside. I want him to listen to everything we say on the radio, kind of critique what we do, and see if he can learn things that we can do better, see if he sees things that we do that we can do better when he gets back in the car," Grubb said.
"Maybe there are things we waste our time on, and maybe there are things we can do a little bit better as we go along. So I think it's going to be a really good experience for him outside. He's going to hate doing it, but he'll learn a lot more about what goes on during the race, how we have to make strategy calls on the fly just like we do in the race car. So I think it's going to be an interesting aspect for him to debrief on Monday after we get to see all that."
Grubb brought dinner to Hamlin's house Tuesday night and laid out the plan. Hamlin expects Martinsville to be the toughest part of his forced hiatus, because of his success there and because it's the first event he'll miss. But he plans to continue to play an active role on his race team, even beyond this weekend.
"I think this is probably going to be a good opportunity for me to learn a lot," Hamlin said. "I know just going and sitting in the pits and sitting on a pit box watching a Nationwide race, you learn more than what you would normally think you do. So I'll take this opportunity to put on a radio, and whether it be practices or whatever, just learn. I can continue to get better, and ? hear what Mark and Brian have to say. Because I know the characteristics of my cars, and when we go to these tracks, what we fight every time. So, do they fight the same things? What are their ideas? I think we've got two very, very good drivers who can compete for race wins, and I need to spend this time learning instead of being passive."
Keeping Hamlin involved also helps the No. 11 team rally around its driver, whose injury was the result of a final-lap crash with Joey Logano at Auto Club Speedway. "We're just doing everything in passing until he gets back," Grubb said. Hamlin said each one of his crewmen have stopped by the house to check on him. He's also heard from between 15 and 20 other drivers, including JGR teammate Matt Kenseth, who Hamlin said checks in on him via text message several times a day.
Hamlin understands this episode is difficult for more than just himself. "I also hate it for them, because when the initial news came out that I was going to be out for a long time, they were very, very disappointed," he said of his crew. "Because they work so hard to have a chance at a championship. To know that's kind of been taken away, it's just really, really tough on them mentally, to know from this point on you're just racing to try to get race wins. That's just very tough for any team hoping for a championship, especially one that's been so close, for them to swallow."
Martin is a two-time winner at Martinsville, but because he's been running a partial schedule hasn't competed there since 2011. The plan is for Martin to run the same setup used by Hamlin and hope the success carries over.
"Mark, he's been good there, obviously. He's run races there and run really good in the past," said Grubb, who worked with Martin when both were at Hendrick Motorsports. "But he knows how good Denny is there and has been for the past several races, and he wants to try what Denny drives. He doesn't care about the details. He just wants to know what it is and how he drives it, and to try to recreate that and see how he does."
Hamlin said other drivers have tried the same thing, with varying degrees of effectiveness. "Some guys who have tried running our setups in the past haven't made it work, and I think Kyle's just adapted and learned how to make it work at that track," he said, referring to JGR teammate Kyle Busch. "So it will be interesting to see what (Martin) thinks about it. That's the curious part to me as a driver, letting someone get in the car with your setup, and what you know you're capable of doing in it, and seeing how someone else does. I think he's going to run really well."
As far as the crew chief is concerned, that's the plan. Although Hamlin's injury has seriously compromised his bid to win the Sprint Cup championship, the owners points crown remains a possibility. The goal of the No. 11 team at Martinsville remains the same, even with its usual driver on the pit box instead of behind the wheel.
"With Mark Martin in the car, we are planning to win the race," Grubb said. "We know we have the capability of doing that. It's not like we have some fill-in driver and we're going to just start and make points. ? We're going to go and we're going to try to win. Maximum points each week is what's going to count and help us still have the potential to make it toward the end. So we've got to do everything we can do for the car."
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