The search for injured driver Denny Hamlin’s temporary replacement continues.
Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs said Thursday the team is evaluating its situation in the wake of Hamlin’s back injury. Hamlin is expected to miss at least five races while recovering from a fractured vertebrae.
“We’re kind of going through all the possible options,” Gibbs said. “Thankfully, we have a week off to kind of get that all planned. It’s a lot to go through – the seats, who is it, how many races.”
Gibbs said virtually every option is being considered.
If the team stays in-house, Nationwide Series driver Elliott Sadler is an obvious option. He has significant Sprint Cup experience (and three victories).
Veteran Mark Martin also might figure into the mix. He drives a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, but both teams field Toyotas and some sort of temporary driver exchange probably could be worked out.
Gibbs wouldn’t confirm that Martin is a possible Hamlin replacement, but he wouldn’t back away from the idea, either.
“We’re going through the process now,” he said. “We can’t say anything for sure. We’ve been doing this for 22 years. It’s the first time we’ve had to talk about this. We’ve had a lot of guys call us. I think the key is getting that right person in the car and still keeping yourself alive (in the point race).”
Gibbs said the team could choose one driver for every race in which Hamlin will be absent or go with several.
“We’re open to either, but we’d rather have someone who could do all those races,” he said. “That consistency will be real helpful.”
Although Hamlin will fall out of the points top 10 because of missing races, theoretically he could qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup through the wild-card route.
“I think he’s definitely thinking about that,” Gibbs said. “But, at the same time, your safety is more important than those points. We’ll definitely keep it in the back of the mind that we still have a shot.”
Gibbs said Hamlin is improving.
“He’s handling it well, but I know he’s just frustrated,” Gibbs said. “The good news from Dr. (Jerry) Petty is that it’s not a major fracture. It will just be a healing process.
“He’s been through this before. He’s a tough dude. I think he’s fighting to get back in the car as fast as he can.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.