By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
TALLADEGA, Ala.--The driver change planned and practiced by Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers worked to perfection.
An opportune caution flag flew on Lap 23 of Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Speedway when fluid gushed out of Trevor Bayne's Ford and oiled the track. Hamlin, Vickers and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing crew were ready.
Recovering from a compression fracture of his first lumbar vertebra sustained during a last-lap crash at Fontana, Calif., in late March, Hamlin received medical clearance to race at Talladega but planned to exit the car during the first caution.
On Lap 25 he brought the car to pit road where Vickers waited. Hamlin unbuckled his belts, disconnected the radio and popped out of a roof hatch in No. 11 Toyota Camry as Vickers began to climb in the driver's-side window.
The crew buckled Vickers in and connected the radio. Vickers exited the pit stall less than a minute after Hamlin got there and had no difficulty staying on the lead lap.
"The exchange went great," Hamlin said. "Really, that was about as smooth as it's went for us. Obviously, we've had a few repetitions at it. 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."
Unfortunately for Hamlin and Vickers, the afternoon didn't continue that smoothly. On Lap 43, Vickers was an innocent victim of a 16-car wreck ignited by Kyle Busch's tap of Kasey Kahne's Chevrolet. The Hamlin/Vickers collaboration finished 34th, but by virtue of starting the race, Hamlin scored 10 championship points he otherwise wouldn't have had.
The Lap 43 wreck at Talladega may have damaged 16 cars, but Danica Patrick's No. 10 Chevrolet wasn't one of them. As cars began spinning wildly in Turn 1, Patrick turned left down onto the apron and narrowly evaded harm.
Crew chief Tony Gibson was watching the action and was amazed by his driver's ability to dodge the wreck.
"We were watching and we were like, 'Holy cow!'" Gibson said during the long rain delay that interrupted the race after Lap 125. "The next thing you know, she came on the radio and she just aimed for the empty hole. I don't know how she missed the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) there at the end.
"The No. 18 came back down across (the track) and she said she got loose when she got on the first apron; then when she got on the flat, she got real loose. How she survived, I have no idea. But I'll take it, because usually we're right in the middle of those things. The GoDaddy.com Chevy did good, and our spotter did an awesome job. We've got a fast car today. We've just got to get up there and show it."
After the race resumed, however, Patrick was the victim of a 12-car pile-up on Lap 183 and finished 33rd.
NASCAR's new Air Titan track-drying system got its first major test of the season and had a substantial impact on the racing schedule at Talladega.
Thanks to faster drying through the use of compressed air--and augmented by traditional jet dryers--Air Titan lengthened a hole between rain and darkness that allowed 110 of 117 scheduled laps to be completed in the Aaron's 312 Nationwide Series race on Saturday.
When Sunday's Sprint Cup race was interrupted by rain, Air Titan went to work after two separate showers and dramatically cut the time need to dry the 2.66-mile superspeedway, NASCAR's longest closed course.
About the only person who might have a bone to pick with Air Titan is Carl Edwards, who likely would have won a rain-shortened race had Air Titan not been there to expedite the drying process.
Edwards instead finished third when the race went the distance.