The back injury Denny Hamlin sustained at Auto Club Speedway after a last-lap, last-corner tangle with Joey Logano is not necessarily anything new to NASCAR, but an injury that flips a driver’s season upside down with multiple races missed? That’s a bit rarer these days.
Think about it; aside from Hamlin’s accident a week ago and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s concussion, one that caused him to sit out two races in 2012, how many debilitating injuries, to the point of having to miss a race or more in the seat, can you remember in the Sprint Cup Series over the past, say, five years?
That number is incredibly low, which is perhaps a testament to NASCAR’s increased safety measures, including SAFER barriers. Prior to Earnhardt’s concussion, the last major incident to speak of involving a well-known driver stepping out of their car due to injury was Ricky Rudd in 2007, after suffering a separated shoulder in Fontana. Rudd missed the next five races, getting help from the Wallace brothers, Kenny and Mike.
Prior to the early 2000s, life in the Cup Series was an entirely different story. Not even including a number of violent crashes, ones that took the lives of drivers like Earnhardt, Irwin and Petty, the list of full-time Cup competitors who had to miss at least a race due to injury is fairly extensive. In 1998 alone, seven different drivers required substitutes after hard accidents, the most notable being Steve Park and Ricky Craven, who both lost around half their seasons as a result.
Hamlin’s wreck recalls those days, when tracks didn’t have SAFER barriers (Hamlin’s hit, for the record, happened at a part of the Auto Club track which has no such protection) and in-car safety measures such as HANS devices were not widely used. When a car got into a wreck, there was more worry about that driver’s safety than there tends to be today, because major injuries are much less common.
The aftermath of Hamlin’s accident also recalls earlier times. Rather than just one driver taking the seat through the duration of his healing, the No. 11 ride will be shared by Mark Martin and Brian Vickers. Martin will pilot the car at this weekend’s Martinsville event, while Vickers is set to drive the car until Hamlin is well enough to compete. Using the Park/Craven comparison again, Steve Park had three different subs: Phil Parsons and Ron Hornaday, Jr. for a race each (both failed to qualify) and Darrell Waltrip for a total of 13 events. Craven, meanwhile, first had Randy LaJoie as a replacement for nine races, followed by Wally Dallenbach, Jr. for three more.
Though the brunt of the focus in these situations tends to be on the injured driver’s recovery, pay mind to the substitutes, too. There’s the question of whether or not they’ll be able to perform to the standards of their predecessor, or if a successful go-round will lead to further gigs with the organization. With Brian Vickers especially, a great few races could lead to another full-time Cup look down the road, if Michael Waltrip Racing doesn’t snatch him up for 2014.
If there’s anyone both Martin and Vickers should try to mimic, if not best during their respective tenures with Joe Gibbs Racing, it’s Wally Dallenbach’s three-race run with Hendrick Motorsports in 1998. Subbing for the injured, aforementioned Ricky Craven, Dallenbach rattled off two top-10 finishes, with an overall average placing of 14.7. In terms of drivers who spent more than one race substituting for an injured racer since 1990, Dallenbach’s average is the highest, and he’s tied for the largest amount of top 10s. His finishes led to a more permanent stint in the No. 50 Budweiser Chevy later that year, when Craven was released. He retained the ride for 1999.
Following Dallenbach in the average finish category (again, with more than one race as a substitute) are Jimmy Horton’s two-race stint driving for an injured Darrell Waltrip in 1990 (average of 15th over two races), Kenny Wallace for Ernie Irvan in 1994 (16.2, 10 races), Greg Sacks also for Waltrip in 1990 (17.3, 3) and Jamie McMurray as a fill-in at the end of 2002 for Sterling Marlin (18.5, 6).
Though McMurray may be only fifth-best in that category, he has something that no other substituting driver since 1990 has: a win. In just his second series start that year, the Missouri native famously went to Victory Lane at Charlotte, launching the 26-year-old into a full-time tenure in NASCAR’s top series that continues to this day.
Of course, neither Martin nor Vickers are strangers to NASCAR’s top level, the former one of the seasoned veterans of the series and the latter an established Cup driver in his own right. Still, a win is certainly something for which to strive for, and is sure to be one of the year’s feel-good stories.
In terms of highest finish while substituting, behind McMurray is a handful of guys who were able to notch top-5 finishes while filling in for the regular driver they were replacing. Runner-up results include Sacks in 1990, driving the No. 17 Hendrick Motorsports car for Waltrip and Kenny Wallace, in 2001 for an injured Steve Park. Wallace, whose name pops up more than anyone when it comes to substitutes, also finished fourth driving in place of Ernie Irvan in 1994. Darrell Waltrip scored a popular fifth at Fontana in 1998, also filling in for Park in the No. 1 Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Chevy.
Martin’s side of the scenario recalls one-off deals. In that regard, Matt Kenseth is the mark to beat after running sixth in place of Bill Elliott at Dover in his first Cup race ever. Scott Pruett’s 2001, 12th-place finish for Joe Nemechek at Sears Point and Nemechek’s substitution for Johnny Benson in 2002 at Richmond, also finishing 12th, come to mind as well.
Looking forward, can Martin or Vickers match some of this success?
Martin certainly has the numbers on his side. The 54-year-old has scored two wins, 12 top 5s and 25 top-10 finishes in 48 races at the paperclip track, meaning he’s finished inside the top 10 in over half of his starts there.
Don’t expect anything less than solid performances from Vickers, either. Looking at what would be his first five races on the schedule (assuming Hamlin doesn’t return before then), he’ll travel to Talladega, where the driver has a win, four top-fives and six top-10 finishes. Then, there’s Richmond, a track at which he has three career top 10s. Texas is really the only track on the docket at which he has subpar results, never finishing in the top 10 in 14 races there.
Plus, remember the tear the 29-year-old went on in his limited schedule with Michael Waltrip Racing last season? Expect more of the same from someone who deserves to have a full-time ride in the Cup Series and is planning on showing why that’s the case.
Oh, one last thing: sources indicate that the previously announced deal to have Elliott Sadler driving at Martinsville, after the Martin fiasco fell through for one big, stat-related reason. His average finish at the track? A mere 24.9. I think I’d take the guy with two wins, too.
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