Hamlin back in the car at Talladega

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.