Denny Hamlin competed in a Sprint Cup Series race for the first time on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway since he suffered a serious back injury during an accident six weeks ago at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
Hamlin ran the first 23 laps under green at Talladega before the first caution came on lap 24 when fluid from Trevor Bayne's expired engine dropped on the track. Hamlin pitted on the following lap and made the driver exchange with Brian Vickers in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. The driver exchange took slightly more than 1 minute, as Vickers was able to keep the No. 11 car on the lead lap. He ran in the 36th position for the restart on lap 29.
"The exchange went great," Hamlin said. "That was about as smooth as it could've been for us. I was able to get out, and everything went well. Obviously, we've had a few repetitions at it. I had a checklist in the car with things that I needed to do before I got out to switch over for the next driver. Everything went seamless and painless."
Starting seventh due to qualifying being rained out on Saturday, Hamlin quickly dropped back to the tail end of the field. He played it safe in hopes of not being caught up in a major wreck had it happened in the early going. Tony Stewart, Michael Waltrip, Juan Pablo Montoya and rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were those drivers who rode in the back with Hamlin to offer him drafting help.
"I can't thank them enough," Hamlin said. "It means a lot as a driver to have your peers that have got your back like that."
Hamlin had missed the last four races -- Martinsville, Texas, Kansas and Richmond -- after he was diagnosed with a compression fracture in his lower back from his accident in Fontana. He plans to run the full distance in next Saturday's 500-mile race at Darlington.
Vickers time in the car was short-lived, though, when he was involved in "the big one" -- a 16-car accident -- that occurred in turn 1 on lap 42. He spent more than 40 laps in the garage for repairs before returning to the track. Vickers had moved into the top-10 before the incident happened.
The major wreck was caused when Kyle Busch nudged Kasey Kahne from behind and put him into the outside wall while they were running in a tight pack of cars. Kevin Harvick, who won last weekend's race at Richmond, and Greg Biffle suffered damage to their cars as well.
After 124 laps, rain began falling on this 2.66-mile superspeedway for the third caution. NASCAR displayed the red flag one lap later to stop the race as the rain had intensified.