TALLADEGA, Ala. – Denny Hamlin ran 16 laps at full speed Friday, turned his car over to Brian Vickers and then didnt exactly rule himself out of running a full race this weekend as he recovers from a back injury.
Hamlin insisted hell again give Vickers the car at some point Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.
But with a sly smile, Hamlin left the door open to run a full race in his return from a compressed fracture of a vertebra in his lower back.
After missing four races, he was cleared Thursday to get back in the car this weekend and said doctors gave him permission to run the entire race.
He said his intention was to take a knee after the start by getting out of the car during a caution and allowing Vickers to finish the race. That slightly contradicted crew chief Darian Grubb, who said earlier Friday theyd play race-day by ear and see how the race flows.
When asked about that after his practice stint, Hamlin stammered about his true plans.
Ummm, yeah. Id say theres going to be a caution at some point and Id like to get out and just ensure myself of one more week of healing, Hamlin said.
He doesnt particularly like Talladega, or restrictor-plate racing, for that matter. But he found himself tossing and turning Thursday night, unable to sleep because he was so anxious to get back in his firesuit, back into his race car and back onto the track.
If it wasnt for my crew chief, I would have ran it out of gas, he said of his only run Friday.
I just wanted to feel speed again. We have alligator blood. I dont know what to say. Were a different breed. Were willing to throw caution to the wind just to get back to what we are doing.
His return drew mixed reactions in the garage.
This is how we make a living, Clint Bowyer said. Youve got to put food on the table and were all in the same boat. Were all given a wonderful opportunity to get paid doing what we love to do, so anytime a racer is OK to get back in the car, hes going to do it whether hes sore or whatever the case is. Wed do it even if it didnt pay anything. Its just the nature of the beast.
Jeff Gordon, at 41 years old and the father of two young children, wasnt sure what his approach would be.
You have to take yourself out of that and understand what the dangers are, what the risks are and if you re-injure yourself, can that be life-threatening or something that ends your career, he said. I think for me, Im later in my career and have a family and so an injury like what Denny went through, I dont know. I might not come back from that just because, is it worth it?
For Denny, I think its worth it for him to really take his time and do it right. What hes doing this weekend, to me that makes sense. Its Talladega, theres ways to avoid those incidents, Gordon added. Ill be interested to see if he gets out or stays in there.
"If I know Denny, hes going to have a hard time getting out. Sounds like he is ready to go.