Wounded Warriors: Subbing for an injured driver is no easy task

BY Tom Jensen • February 26, 2015

When a driver gets injured, fielding the same car with a substitute driver -- even a capable and experienced one -- becomes a daunting task.

Every team prepares its cars to the exact specs of its primary driver, down to details like the location of the pedals and the placement of mirrors and switches in the cockpit.

Even more challenging is the fact that every driver likes his car set up in a different fashion. A crew chief knows how his primary driver likes his car set up, how it should feel and how it should handle. But when a substitute comes on board, there is precious little time to make changes to the car and no way to quickly build a common language between driver and crew chief so that each understands the other in terms of how the car is performing.

No wonder it's so difficult for substitutes to race up front.

If you want some idea of the challenges facing substitutes David Ragan in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Regan Smith in the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway and beyond, look at some of the recent substitute scenarios and how they worked out.

HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS, No. 88 -- After getting his second concussion of the year in a pileup at Talladega Superspeedway in the fall of 2012, Dale Earnhardt Jr. skipped two races and was replaced by Regan Smith.

At the Charlotte Motor Speedway race, Smith lost an engine in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and ended the night 38th. Smith rebounded nicely the following week at Kansas Speedway, where he finished seventh.

Earnhardt came back the next race at Martinsville Speedway and finished 21st.

JOE GIBBS RACING, No. 11 -- In 2013, Denny Hamlin broke his back in a hard, head-on crash on the last lap at Auto Club Speedway. He missed the next four races while he recovered.

The first race Hamlin missed was the spring Martinsville race, where Mark Martin finished 10th filling in behind the wheel of the No. 11 Toyota.

The next week at Texas Motor Speedway, Brian Vickers finished eighth in the No. 11. Then Vickers finished 31st at Kansas Speedway and 35th at Richmond International Raceway. Hamlin returned at Talladega, where he finished 34th.

Hamlin would go on to have the worst season of his career, finishing 23rd in points, although he rebounded nicely last year, finishing third behind Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman. This despite missing the 2014 Auto Club race because of a piece of metal in his eye. Sam Hornish Jr. drove the No. 11 in that race, finishing 17th.

MICHAEL WALTRIP RACING, NO. 55 -- In October 2013, it was announced that Vickers would miss the remainder of the season with a recurrence of blood clots that sidelined him for most of 2010.

Vickers was driving the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota on a part-time schedule in 2013, splitting the ride with Mark Martin. Waltrip himself drove the car in the fall Talladega race, where he finished 32nd.

Then, Elliott Sadler ran 25th at Martinsville, 19th at Texas, 25th at Phoenix International Raceway and 14th in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

STEWART-HAAS RACING, No. 14 -- In 2013, Tony Stewart missed 15 races after suffering a double compound fracture of his right leg in a sprint car crash in August at an Iowa track. Veteran Mark Martin took over most of the load, driving the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet for 12 races, with Austin Dillon adding two and Max Papis one.

Papis finished 14th on the road course at Watkins Glen International, the first race Stewart was out. Dillon finished 14th at Michigan International Speedway and 26th at Talladega.

Martin's best finish, meanwhile, was a ninth at Richmond.

Last year, Stewart missed three more races following a fatal sprint car accident in New York state.

Regan Smith filled in for the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion at Watkins Glen, finishing 37th, while Jeff Burton brought the No. 14 home 37th at Michigan and 14th at Bristol.


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