By JENNA FRYER (AP Auto Racing Writer) | The Associated Press
Martin’s first start in the No. 11 Toyota will be next week at Martinsville Speedway, where he wasn’t scheduled to race. Brian Vickers had already been tabbed to drive Martin’s car for Michael Waltrip Racing at Martinsville.
”We’ve been real fortunate to have never been in this situation with the need to find someone to fill in for an injured driver,” said team President J.D. Gibbs. ”A lot goes into a decision like this, but we are really pleased to have someone of the character and caliber of Mark Martin to fill in while Denny is out.
”Obviously, we’re not exactly sure how long that is going to take, but Mark’s career speaks for itself and our team knows it will have the opportunity to compete for a win every week.”
The 54-year-old Martin has driven one other time for JGR, in the Nationwide Series last year at Las Vegas, where he finished second.
Hamlin is expected to miss at least five races while he heals. JGR didn’t specify how long Martin will be in the car, but the fifth race is at Talladega, a track Martin has opted to skip the last few years.
”I just hate not being able to be in the car right now, but I really appreciate Mark being able to fill in for me,” Hamlin said in a statement. ”Like everyone in NASCAR, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mark and I know he will keep that FedEx Camry up front until I get back behind the wheel.”
Martin has made 858 Cup starts in his 31 seasons in NASCAR’s top series. He has 40 career victories in Cup, another 49 in the Nationwide Series.
”I’m happy to have this opportunity to help out JGR, FedEx and Denny,” Martin said in a statement. ”Hopefully, I can keep those guys up front and compete for wins while Denny heals up.”
MWR didn’t announce who will drive Martin’s No. 55 Toyota in his absence, but it will most likely be Vickers, who was slotted to drive nine of Martin’s races this year. The team is believed to be considering Vickers as Martin’s potential replacement, and this would give MWR a lengthier preview.
Earlier Thursday, Gibbs said his preference was to use just one driver in the No. 11 while Hamlin is sidelined. The organization has Elliott Sadler and Vickers running Nationwide Series cars, but neither was totally free of commitments to drive Hamlin’s Cup car.
Vickers had the Martinsville conflict and Sadler has a deal with sponsorship to run a fourth JGR car at Kansas and Talladega.
Meanwhile, the team hopes that Hamlin has a fast recovery.
He was injured in a last-lap crash Sunday with former JGR teammate Joey Logano while the two were racing for the win at California. Hamlin’s car hit head-on into an inside wall, and he was hospitalized overnight in California.
An examination in North Carolina on Tuesday by Dr. Jerry Petty determined Hamlin needed at least six weeks of rest to heal. It was devastating news to Hamlin, who was 10th in the Sprint Cup standings and has never missed making the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship since his 2006 rookie season.
”He’s handling it well, he’s just frustrated,” Gibbs said. ”The good news we got from Dr. Petty is that it’s not a major fracture, it’s not ligament damage, which both require surgery. It’s just going to be a healing process and really, you don’t know how long it’s going to take. It’s just up to Denny’s body. But he’s been through this before, he’s a tough dude, and he’s fighting to get back in the car as fast as he can.”
Hamlin raced in 2010 one week after having knee surgery. He completed the race at Phoenix in obvious pain, but refused to use a replacement driver or get out of the car.
The organization has done its own math and determined that Hamlin can still make the Chase this year providing he wins races once he returns to the car.
”I was thinking he was out of it, but the way it’s laid out, the points, there’s a shot, and I know he wants to be a part of it,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs played down any major tension between Logano and Hamlin while they were teammates. Logano signed with Penske Racing late last season, and was eventually banned from team debrief meetings as Hamlin and Penske driver Brad Keselowski raced for the title.
But Gibbs said he didn’t believe that Logano’s pending departure heightened any friction between the drivers.
”There were a few things that popped up, a Nationwide race here and there, there was some frustration,” Gibbs said. ”I think if Joey had that breakout streak, that would have all gone away for Denny. There was some tension at times, but I think overall it was nothing major.”
Logano’s new team owner, Roger Penske, has reached out to the Gibbs organization, but Gibbs said they’ve not spoken to Logano, the driver they handed a Nationwide Series ride to the moment he turned 18. But Gibbs said the feuding former teammates were simply racing hard on the last lap of a race, and it’s unfortunate that Hamlin ended up injured.
”My personal take is that Joey was really trying to make a point, and he was pushing it – ‘Hey, I am going to win this thing or else,’ ” Gibbs said. ”I think when he realized Denny was hurt, it took a whole new turn. From what I’ve seen, (Logano) is really hurt by that as well.”
Hamlin and Logano have exchanged texts since the accident, but Hamlin told The Associated Press on Wednesday: ”It didn’t go well. The conversation was both short and unproductive.”
Logano on Thursday tweeted: ”Wish (at)dennyhamlin a speedy recovery. Hope he gets back to the track soon. And thanks to all of my fans for their support.”