MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Denny Hamlin was at Martinsville Speedway on Friday and so was his No. 11 Toyota — just not working in concert with one another.
Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing team began the process of moving on without him as Hamlin is expected to miss the next five Sprint Cup races after breaking his back in the March 24 race at Fontana, Calif.
With Hamlin watching in street clothes from atop his team’s hauler, veteran Mark Martin practiced and qualified Hamlin’s car. Martin was 18th-fastest in practice and will line up 35th to start Sunday’s STP 500.
Brian Vickers will take over the No. 11 next weekend at Texas and remain with the team until Hamlin returns behind the wheel.
Regardless of the driver’s name on the windshield, crew chief Darian Grubb has been clear this remains Hamlin’s team.
“We just wanted to rally around Denny and make sure he knows he’s our driver, and we’re going to keep our performance up until he gets back,” Grubb said.
Hamlin said he has appreciated the concern from the members of his team and knows they were disappointed to learn he would miss several weeks in the car.
“We work so hard just to have a chance for the championship. To know that has kind of been taken away is really, really tough on them,” Hamlin said.
“Mentally, I think knowing that we are racing from this point on just to get race wins ... that’s very tough for any team hoping for a championship — especially one that has been so close.”
Martin is no stranger to running with teams accustomed to using multiple drivers during the course of a season.
He splits time in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 with Vickers and team co-owner Michael Waltrip. Martin has run partial schedules with teams in the past, including ones at Ginn Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc.
“From my standpoint, it has worked well because I’ve worked with people that embraced it,” Martin said. “I certainly think if you approached it with a negative attitude then I don’t think it would work at all.
“Unfortunately, they (the members of Hamlin’s team) don’t have a choice in this. They will stand behind (the change). This is Denny’s team and they’re going to do everything they can to continue to build that team so that when he steps back in they are ready to go race to win.”
Grubb said he and the team “spent about five minutes” going over the mathematical possibilities of whether they could still make the Chase if Hamlin missed the expected five races.
“It’s a six-week estimate — it could be three weeks or six months, we don’t know,” Grubb said. “We’re just going to wait and see what happens when Denny gets back in the car.”