TALLADEGA, Ala. — Denny Hamlin ran 16 laps at full speed Friday, turned his car over to Brian Vickers, then didn't totally rule himself out of running a full race this weekend as he recovers from a back injury.
Hamlin insisted he'll give Vickers the car at some point during Sunday's Aaron's 499 Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.
But with a sly smile, Hamlin left the door open to run a full race in his return from a compressed fracture of a vertebra in his lower back. After missing four races, he was cleared Thursday and said doctors gave him permission to run the entire race.
He said his intention was to "take a knee" after the start, getting out during a caution and letting Vickers. That slightly contradicted crew chief Darian Grubb, who said earlier Friday they would play the race by ear.
When asked about that after his practice stint, Hamlin stammered about his true plans.
"Ummm, yeah. I'd say there's going to be a caution at some point and I'd like to get out and just ensure myself of one more week of healing," Hamlin said.
So bet on Hamlin getting out of the car?
"Is there that bet in Vegas?" Hamlin asked.
He doesn't particularly like Talladega, or restrictor-plate racing, for that matter. But he found himself tossing and turning Thursday, unable to sleep because he was so eager to get back into his race car and onto the track.
"I just wanted to feel speed again," he said. "We have alligator blood. I don't know what to say. We're a different breed."
His return drew mixed reactions in a sport that's inherently dangerous.
"This is how we make a living," Clint Bowyer said. "You've got to put food on the table and we're all in the same boat. We're all given a wonderful opportunity to get paid doing what we love to do, so anytime a racer is okay to get back in the car, he's going to do it whether he's sore or whatever the case is."
Jeff Gordon, 41, and father of two young children, wasn't sure what his approach would be.
"I think for me, I'm later in my career and have a family and so an injury like what Denny went through, I don't know," Gordon said. "I might not come back from that just because, is it worth it? … What (Hamlin is) doing this weekend, to me that makes sense. It's Talladega, there's ways to avoid those incidents."
Pastrana on pole: Travis Pastrana earned his first career Nationwide series pole at Talladega in qualifying for today's Aaron's 312. The 10-time X Games gold medalist had a fast lap of 176.500 mph on the 2.66-mile tri-oval. Austin Dillon (176.162) will start second, followed by Trevor Bayne and Sprint Cup regular Danica Patrick.
Kurt Busch to take IndyCar for spin: Kurt Busch will test an IndyCar for Andretti Autosport next week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was at Indy this week testing tires for Goodyear with his NASCAR team, Furniture Row Racing. Busch will drive the No. 1 Chevrolet of IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay.
NHRA: Rain postponed qualifying at the Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway. Only eight Pro Stock cars made runs before consistent showers returned to the track northeast of Atlanta.