Hamlin Starts, Jones Finishes 26th at BristolApril 22, 2015
Denny Hamlin started fifth in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, but was only able to compete in 22 laps after suffering neck spasms, turning over his #11 FedEx Freight Toyota to fellow Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Erik Jones, following a four hour rain delay. Jones was able to finish 26th in his first career NSCS race won by JGR’s Matt Kenseth.
“We felt like we had a race-winning FedEx Toyota, we just didn’t have a race-winning driver,” said Hamlin, who has one Bristol victory. “I think (the injury) is something that will go away. I just pulled something and jarred it in some kind of a weird way. It’s just a tough track. I’ll just try to win Richmond next week.”
While Hamlin was receiving treatment for the neck issue during the rain delay, Jones was called on by the team and whisked to Bristol from his home in North Carolina. Making it to the track just in time to jump behind the wheel of the #11 before the engines were re-fired, Hamlin and crew chief Dave Rogers had little time to brief the 18-year-old Xfinity Series driver who had never been behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup Series machine and was now on a steep learning curve at one of the most demanding tracks on the circuit.
Jones was handed the car in fifth, but due to the driver change had to fall back to the rear of the field, starting 37th at the drop of the green flag. Given the lack of any seat time in the FedEx car and the tight Bristol track, it wasn’t long before the lead pack was bearing down on Jones, putting the young driver a lap down just prior to the lap 60 competition caution.
As the race progressed, Jones became more comfortable with the characteristics of the car and started running more consistent lap times, by the halfway point in the race, he was up to 29th, two laps down to the leaders.
As the laps clicked off, the intensity on the track began to build and Jones had to dodge accidents and spinning cars, but with 43 laps to go, was involved in a chain reaction incident that left the car with front end damage, forcing the team to pit twice under caution for repairs, returning to the race 31st. However, in the final laps Jones was able to take advantage of the accidents and cautions to bring home the 26th place finish.
"It was a huge learning experience overall,” Jones said. “The FedEx Camry was pretty good, but it just took me so long to really figure out what I had and what I had to do different from the Xfinity cars was just huge. I learned a ton. I wish we could start the night over and do it all again. It was an interesting situation for sure. I never turned a lap in one of these cars until the green flag dropped. It was interesting and I learned a ton. I can't wait to try it again."
Since Hamlin started the car, he receives the points earned by Jones’ finish and Hamlin now sits 11th in the NASCAR standings after eight of 26 regular season races.
The series returns to action Saturday, April 25, at Richmond International Raceway.