TALLADEGA, Ala. — Denny Hamlin ran 16 laps at full speed Friday, turned his car over to Brian Vickers and then didn't exactly rule himself out of running a full race this weekend as he recovers from a back injury.
Hamlin insisted he'll 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 they'd 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. I'd say there's going to be a caution at some point and I'd like to get out and just ensure myself of one more week of healing," Hamlin said.
So bet on Hamlin getting out of the car?
"Is there that bet in Vegas?" Hamlin asked.
He doesn't 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 wasn't 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're competitors and when you see the people on TV in other sports fighting through injuries to come back to the field or the court, we feel that same thing. We have alligator blood. I don't know what to say. We're a different breed. We're willing to throw caution to the wind just to get back to what we are doing."
His return drew mixed reactions in the garage.
Race car driving by nature is dangerous and every day on the job has its risks. Now Hamlin is coming back from a serious injury that not everyone would treat the same.
"This is how we make a living," Clint Bowyer said. "You've got to put food on the table and we're all in the same boat. We're 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, he's going to do it whether he's sore or whatever the case is. We'd do it even if it didn't pay anything. It's just the nature of the beast."
Jeff Gordon, at 41 years old and the father of two young children, wasn't 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, I'm later in my career and have a family and so an injury like what Denny went through, I don't know. I might not come back from that just because, is it worth it?
"For Denny, I think it's worth it for him to really take his time and do it right. What he's doing this weekend, to me that makes sense. It's Talladega, there's ways to avoid those incidents," Gordon said. "I'll be interested to see if he gets out or stays in there. If I know Denny, he's going to have a hard time getting out. Sounds like he is ready to go."
Hamlin was supposed to get out of the car in his return race at Phoenix after knee surgery three years ago. But he stuck it out to prove something to his team because he was injured playing basketball and felt he owed it to his crew to fight through the pain.
"I felt like I had put my team in a very bad spot by getting hurt outside of racing," he said. "I stayed in to tell them basically that I was sorry and I was going to do whatever I could for them. That hurt worse than what this does in the race car."
There's no pain this time around, he said, and the only discomfort is when he actually gets out of the car. To alleviate that, the Joe Gibbs Racing team has taken the option of using a roof hatch and Hamlin is using it to exit the car.
He practiced the driver exchange with Vickers on Friday and twice did it in just over a minute — fast enough to ensure the car would remain on the lead lap if they swapped under caution.
Hamlin now goes forward this week balancing risk versus reward and the challenge ahead. He's currently 28th in the standings and needs to climb to 20th in the Sprint Cup standings to be eligible to claim one of two wild-card slots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
He'll earn the points Sunday if he starts the race.
"We're going to have to make a big, big run if we're going to be part of the postseason," he said. "Our Chase has to start right now. We have to perform each week like it's a Chase race and do everything we can to get wins. If we don't win, it doesn't matter."
But there is a risk, he admitted.
"I don't know the exact science, and no one knows the exact percentages. That's what makes this really, really hard," he said. "But, as far as I've been told, I understand it would take such a significant hit 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 a little bit more than me because I don't know the risks exactly and neither do they. 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."