TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — The goal at Talladega Superspeedway was to get Denny Hamlin a chance to turn some laps and collect some points.
He accomplished one of his two goals Sunday.
Hamlin successfully returned from a compression fracture in a vertebra in his lower back by turning 23 laps Sunday before getting out of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for replacement driver Brian Vickers. The swap was made during the first caution, with Hamlin climbing out through a roof hatch and Vickers sliding in through the window quickly enough to keep the No. 11 on the lead lap.
Hamlin then sat on the pit road wall watching the cars circle by, eager to see what Vickers could do in what's expected to be his last time in Hamlin's car. He missed four races since the accident at California last month but is due to run the full race next weekend at Darlington.
"It was all about just going through the motions and getting the process of making a comeback, getting that started," Hamlin said. "This is the first week of a comeback. This is going to be the start of everything, so anything that Brian gets us for points today is strictly a bonus and we're going to start next week in Darlington with our hair on fire."
But it was short-lived hope for Hamlin.
A mere 18 laps later, before Hamlin had even completed his media interviews, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch triggered a 16-car accident on lap 43 that collected Vickers. Hamlin scurried to his garage stall to survey the damage on the car, where Vickers sat with the window net still up.
Because he started the race Sunday, Hamlin is credited for all points earned at Talladega and needed a strong day to begin climbing out of the hole he's in from missing the four races. He came to Talladega ranked 28th in the standings and needs to climb to 20th to be eligible to claim one of two wild-card slots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
That long journey back is why he decided to start Sunday and race for a little bit. He got assistance from good friend Michael Waltrip, a fellow Toyota driver, who dropped to the back of the field, and former teammate Tony Stewart, who also agreed to drop back, so they could all draft with Hamlin and protect him from losing the draft while avoiding trouble.
Hamlin later revealed that Juan Pablo Montoya and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also came to the back to help him.
"I've got to thank all of the drivers, Montoya and Stewart and Michael and Stenhouse that really sacrificed the first part of the race for me and I can't thank them enough. It means a lot as a driver to have your peers that have got your back like that," Hamlin said. "Tony actually approached me at my charity event last weekend and said 'I want to work with you depending on what your plan is for Talladega.'
"Me and Tony for whatever reason, when we stopped becoming teammates, we started becoming teammates. 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 Gibbs. We've got a great relationship and he's had my back really for the last three years."