Denny Hamlin? Says he's okay to start-and-swap in Sunday's Talladega 500. Others question that....
By Mike Mulhern
While listening to Waylon, Willie and the boys, trying to keep the firewood dry, and reflecting on a bit of how NASCAR racing has changed over the years...
This is the home of the 'Big One,' and there have been a lot of those.
Tony Stewart's block-and-crash last fall was memorable, for sure.
And maybe Denny Hamlin and NASCAR executives might want to check out this video: Big Ones
Rain washed out Saturday qualifying for Sunday's Talladega 500/Aaron's 499, and that puts Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr., Friday's two fastest in first round practice, on the front row for the 12noonCT/1pmET start.
Hamlin got back in the car Friday for the first time since his March 24th crash in California, and he ran 16 laps at speed at Talladega Superspeedway, then letting relief driver Brian Vickers take over.
Hamlin got NASCAR's okay to drive in Sunday's 500, though some in the stock car garage are questioning why Hamlin is in such a rush to race again, given the seriousness of his back injury. Hamlin says he has been given medical clearance to run the full 500 miles, but says he plans to turn the car over to Vickers at the first caution.
Hamlin says he plans to make that driver swap by crawling through the roof, while Vickers slides in through the window.
Jack Roush teammates Carl Edwards (R) and Ricky Stenhouse (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
With rain in the forecast for Saturday's qualifying, drivers worked Friday to get in enough practice for Sunday's 12pmCT/1pmET start. With qualifying rained out, most of the starting grid is set by practice speeds (new this year, rather than point standings): the 10 fastest were Ford's Edwards (199.675 mph), Toyota's Truex, Ford's Marcos Ambrose, Ford's Joey Logano, Chevy's Ryan Newman, Chevy's Matt Kenseth, Toyota's Hamlin/Vickers, Chevy's Jimmie Johnson, Chevy's Jeff Gordon, and Chevy's Kasey Kahne.
Edwards' 199 would be the fastest qualifying lap since 1987, but it will not be an official speed if quals are washed out; it was a partially draft-assisted speed anyway. But it does show how fast the cars are here.
Noticeably off the pace in Friday practice: Kurt Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, all headliners last weekend at Richmond. However the draft is a great equalizer.
Paul Wolfe, Brad Keselowski's crew chief, watches his Ford running through NASCAR's Talladega inspection station. "Inspection Theater?" Why doesn't NASCAR simply inspect all the cars each week at its Charlotte R&D center? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Hamlin? He insists he's up for this next step.
"It's really good to get back and run some speed and get adrenaline pumping again," Hamlin says.
His goal is to crack the top-20 in the standings by the Sept. 7th playoff cut and have two wins by that point. That, he says, would get him into the chase.
Pain? "No discomfort inside the car at all," Hamlin says. "The most discomfort I have is getting out of the car. That's why we're choosing to go through the roof. Any twisting we can keep out of will be good.
"Inside the car I feel like I did six or seven weeks ago."
He says he's got the driver change down to a cautious one minute plus a few seconds. "So I think we're going to be plenty good if a caution comes out to come out, to preserve a lap."
For a man with previous back ailments, this all seems a bit rushed, according to some in the garage who have been through similar situations.
How in the world did a doctor give the okay for Hamlin to get back in a race car where he could easily crash again?
"It's a process," Hamlin says carefully. "Any time you come back from major injury it's a process.
"We had an amazing group of doctors that looked my (MRI) scans over, and saw me in person. It wasn't a consensus for Richmond, so we decided to err on the safe side."
Hamlin tries to downplay some of the issues: "Basically what we were going to do this weekend is the equivalent of a quarterback hiking the ball and taking a knee .
"We were going to very much minimize our risks this weekend of reinjuring ourselves...which gives us one more week to heal."
And he says he plans on going the distance next weekend at Darlington.
Michael Waltrip: crashed out by Tony Stewart here last fall while battling for the win. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Hamlin insists he's got a good game plan now to make the playoffs and race for the championship.
"We're going to have to make a big, big run these next 17 weeks if we're going to be part of the post-season," he says.
"I'm excited about the challenge.
"Our chase has got to start right now. We've got to perform each week like it is a chase race and do everything we can to get wins -- because if we don't win, it really doesn't matter."
Hamlin concedes an early wreck could happen here. "We've seen it here on lap one, and we've seen it on the last lap. I'm going to put myself in what I believe is a safe position."
Racing injured is nothing new. Richard Petty once raced with a broken neck, though no one else knew it at the time.
"If this was the old NASCAR -- if this was the '80s or '90s, I would have been racing at Martinsville (the week following his crash).
"But NASCAR has put in place some great people with their medical staff, and they insured my quality of life is not in danger when I get on the track. I thank them for that.
"...and obviously the format which we have to make the chase.
"If this was the old system, we would be long out of it.
"I just wanted to feel speed again. We're competitors...we have alligator blood."
However Hamlin does, cautiously, concede there is a possibility of a more serious injury here.
"I have to be careful with the answer of this," he says. "There are going to be risks. There is risk.
"Nobody knows (when the injury will be fully healed), and that's what makes this really, really hard.
"With bone healing -- it doesn't matter if you break your arm, you break your leg --or whatever, a bone takes a year to heal.
"But I understand it would take such a significant hit (for a major reinjury) that you probably would be injured from it even if you were 100 percent healthy.
"I've got to let the doctors speak for that... because I don't know the risks exactly, and neither do they. We're just trying to buy myself another week until Darlington.
"But the risk is so minimal it's almost not even there."
Clint Bowyer: a winner here, one of the sport's strongest drivers, a challenger last weekend at Richmond...and a good pick in Sunday's Talladega 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
How this approval really happened isn't that clear. "I will say it's not really NASCAR," Hamlin says. "None of this was NASCAR not approving me. They relied on their medical staff.
"They relied then on my medical staff to give us clearance.
"They don't really have a say-so yes or no."
That's hard to buy, however.
"The only thing that is different is that you're either cleared 100 percent or you're not," Hamlin went on.
All this to keep a long-shot at making the chase.
"When this happened, and we started figuring things out, missing five points races -- if we just did what we did last year, we would make it," Hamlin says.
"It's Game Seven every single week for the next 17 weeks for us.
"We know if we win two races, I'm going to find it very hard to believe we won't be part of the chase.
"Getting to 20th in 17 weeks, we can probably do that. It's just a matter whether we can win the races or not."
Johanna Long: no silver spoon driver here. Just a good ol' blue-collar working girl, trying to make a living on the stock car tour (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)