NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
 
                  === Hamlin back in the car at Talladega ===
 
 Talladega,  AL (Sports  Network) -  Denny Hamlin  drove his  No. 11  Joe Gibbs
 Racing Toyota for the first time on Friday at Talladega Superspeedway since he
 suffered  a serious  back injury  during  a crash  on  March 24  at Auto  Club
 Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
 
 Hamlin  participated in  the  first  of two  practice  sessions at  Talladega,
 posting the seventh quickest lap at 199.317 mph.
 
 On  Thursday,  Hamlin was  medically cleared to  participate in this weekend's
 activities  at  Talladega, which includes  at least starting Sunday's 500-mile
 Sprint  Cup Series race here. The JGR driver has missed the last four races --
 Martinsville,  Texas, Kansas  and Richmond -- since he sustained a compression
 fracture in his lower back at Fontana.
 
 Hamlin  spent  a good portion of  the opening practice running laps around the
 2.66-mile  Talladega  track before  he  returned  to  the garage  area.  Brian
 Vickers, who substituted for him the past three weeks, finished practicing for
 the  team. Vickers  will  be on  stand  by as  Hamlin's  relief driver  during
 Sunday's scheduled 500-mile race.
 
 "There's  no  discomfort inside  the  car  at  all,"  Hamlin said.  "The  most
 discomfort  I have is  getting out of the car. That's why we're choosing to go
 through  the  roof hatch  instead of the  window. It's much  easier on me. Any
 twisting  that  I don't do will  be good. Inside the  race car, I feel just as
 good  as I  did six or seven  weeks ago. I'm really excited about this weekend
 and finally getting back again."
 
 Hamlin  is  not sure at  what point of  the race he will  hand the car over to
 Vickers.  It's  likely he would  get out  of the car  and let Vickers drive it
 whenever  the  first caution period  occurs. Hamlin said  he plans to fall way
 back  in the field  to a safe running position where he would not be caught up
 in a major wreck, if one were to happen.
 
 "I'm obviously going to put myself in what I believe will be a safe position,"
 he noted.
 
 Hamlin  believes that playing it safe at Talladega will give him one more week
 of  healing before the series runs its next race (also 500 miles in length) on
 May  11 at  Darlington Raceway. By starting Talladega, Hamlin will receive the
 full points based on where the No. 11 finishes in the event.
 
 Hamlin  and Vickers  have practiced their driver change. When Hamlin will exit
 the  car through  the roof hatch, Vickers  will get in it through the driver's
 window.  Both  drivers are  hopeful the  change will be  completed in about 60
 seconds.
 
 Right  now, Hamlin is  28th in the point standings. He is 71 points behind the
 20th-place  driver (Kurt Busch) and 126 away from the 10th spot (Paul Menard).
 The  top-10 drivers in points at the conclusion of the regular season (Sept. 7
 at  Richmond)  qualify for the Chase  for the Sprint Cup championship. The two
 wild  card positions go to those drivers between 11th-20th in points that have
 the most wins. There are 17 races remaining before the Chase begins.
 
 "I'm  excited  about the challenge," Hamlin  said. "Our Chase has got to start
 right  now.  We've got  to perform  each week like  it's a  Chase race, and do
 everything we can to get wins. If we don't win, it really doesn't matter."
 
 Hamlin has made the Chase each year since his rookie season in 2006.
 
 05/03 17:41:12 ET

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