NASCAR Talladega 2013: Hamlin says he will start race, but won’t finish

USA TODAY Sports

Denny Hamlin will start Sunday's NASCAR race at Talladega then give way to a relief driver. But will he do what he did three years ago and instead grit it out and try and make it to the finish?

Forty one days after sustaining a compression fracture in his lower back, Denny Hamlin resumed driving duties Friday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Having missed four races while recuperating, Hamlin was cleared medically Thursday to return, but will only see minimal track time in Sunday's Aaron's 499.

The plan is for Hamlin to take the green flag and give way to relief driver Brian Vickers under the first caution period, who has driven the No. 11 car the last three weeks. By doing so, he will then receive the points from wherever Vickers finishes.

In anticipation for the mid-race driver exchange, Joe Gibbs Racing practiced making the swap numerous times Friday with a best time of 1 minute, 6 seconds. The team even installed a special roof hatch so Hamlin wouldn't put further strain on his back.

"There's no discomfort inside the car at all," Hamlin said Friday at Talladega. "Really, for me, the most discomfort I have is getting out of the car. That's why we're choosing to go through the roof versus the window. It's much easier on me, and really any kind of twisting we can keep out of myself will be good.

"Really, inside the race car I feel just like I did six, seven weeks ago. Excited about this weekend and finally getting back going again."

But all these extra precautions call into question whether Hamlin is returning too soon.

It would seem that starting a race on one of NASCAR's more treacherous tracks would put Hamlin in danger of further aggravating an injury which still isn't 100 percent. However, he says this isn't the case. He equates the risk to a quarterback taking a knee with the clock winding down.

"As far as the first lap, early-on wreck it definitely can happen," he said. "We've seen it here at this race track on lap one and we've seen it on the last lap. ... I'm obviously going to put myself in what I believe is a safe position.

"We're just trying to buy myself another week obviously until Darlington, but the risk is so minimal that it's almost not even there."

Yet no matter how minimal Hamlin says the risk is, the fact is peril lurks on every lap at Talladega. It is a track where multi-car wrecks are the norm and have a way of consuming everyone from the leader to the guy running in the back by himself -- which is what he says he's going to do.

And what if Hamlin calls an audible and decides to stay in the car and try and complete the entire distance? It wouldn't be the first time such an incident has occurred.

In 2010 at Phoenix International Raceway, Hamlin was just two weeks removed from knee replacement surgery and scheduled to hand his car off to Casey Mears. Hamlin, though, elected to ignore the pain and send a message to his team.

And reading between the lines, some of Hamlin's comments didn't sound like a driver who was committed to following the gameplan. He even admitted that he couldn't sleep Thursday because he was so excited to get back behind the wheel.

"We're competitors and when you see the people on TV and other sports fighting through injuries to get back on the field or the court we feel that same thing," he said. "We have alligator blood.

"I don't know what to say. It's just we're a different breed that are willing to throw caution to the wind just to get back to what we love doing."

But Hamlin says he will not deviate from the script. And part of the reasoning is because he wants his team to be able to challenge for the win Sunday; something he acknowledges can only happen if Vickers is driving.

"I don't want to run a race similar to like I did here in the fall just kind of sitting in the back, just waiting on the big wreck and then driving around it," Hamlin said. "I'd rather give my team an honest shot at a win by putting Brian in and letting him go up there and be aggressive because you're not going to win these races without being aggressive and I don't want to be aggressive right now."

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