For Denny Hamlin, coming off the bench and jumping back in a NASCAR Sprint Cup car couldn’t come soon enough.
Late Thursday, Joe Gibbs Racing announced that Hamlin, 32, would return to the No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota this weekend.
As of 12:30 p.m. ET on Friday, Hamlin was on a flight bound for Talladega Superspeedway, site of Sunday’s Aaron’s 499, after missing the last four races due to injuries sustained at Auto Club Speedway on March 24. A little after 2 p.m. ET, he was on the track for practice.
For crew chief Darian Grubb, the game plan is to make his driver’s return as comfortable as possible.
“We’re going to sit down once he gets here and see how it goes,” Grubb said. “Run a little practice and see how he feels and come up with our plan from there.
“I’m thrilled to have him back, healthy and free and clear. Now, it’s just up to him and his strength and see how he feels as he goes along. We’ve been really itching to get him back. The last couple of weeks, he thinks he’s ready, he feels he’s ready and now the doctors have said he is and we can’t wait to get him into the car. We’ve got our guy back.”
Brian Vickers will be standing by for Hamlin. Vickers subbed in the No. 11 Toyota for the last three races at Texas, Kansas and Richmond, His best finish was eighth at Texas. Grubb anticipates Vickers running a few laps in practice on Friday as well to get acclimated with the car.
“We probably will (put Vickers in) at some point to see if the mirrors are good for him and everything in case he does have to get in there,” Grubb said. “We’re ready to go back and forth.”
Grubb didn’t seem concerned that the weather could interfere with practice and Hamlin getting back up to speed. Friday’s forecast called for a 30 percent chance of rain with that increasing to 80 percent throughout the day.
“We’re looking good for practice today,” Grubb said. “For tomorrow and qualifying, it doesn’t look good at all. I think we’ll get some time today either way.”
If qualifying is rained out, Hamlin will line up 16th – according to owner points — for Sunday’s race.