The reports are in, and they're not good. After a heavy last-lap crash while battling with Joey Logano for the lead in Sunday's Auto Club 400, Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin suffered an L1 compression fracture in his back.
Hamlin hopes to be released from a California hospital today and will visit with famed neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty before determining his status for the next Sprint Cup race at Martinsville in two weeks. The hope is that he won't have to miss any events, but as his health is the first priority, his status remains questionable at the moment.
In racing, the effects of back injuries can be wildly unpredictable. Buddy Lazier won the 1996 Indianapolis 500 despite having broken his back in multiple places two months prior. But when Dario Franchitti suffered a back injury in April 2003 while riding a motorcycle—a fracture of the L1 vertebrae, the same vertebrae Hamlin injured—he missed all but one race over the rest of the season.
In short, Gibbs may be looking to hire a substitute driver in the near future.
Luckily for the perennial Chase-contending team, there are plenty of quality driver options to fill the seat if the worst-case scenario indeed plays out. The following five drivers may see their names bandied about if Hamlin has to miss any significant time, and don't be surprised if any one of them takes over the No. 11 Toyota.
The two-time defending Nationwide Series runner-up seems like he would be the most logical choice to fill the No. 11 car. After all, Sadler doesn't have existing Cup commitments and already runs for Joe Gibbs Racing's Nationwide team.
The downside is, after an engine failure at Bristol relegated him to 36th in the results, he's now in a hole as far as the Nationwide title hunt goes—eighth in points, 56 behind leader Sam Hornish. Accepting a Cup ride and doing double duty could make that chase worse, but for a driver who wants to get back into Cup, this could be the opportunity he's been waiting for.
This one's actually got some limitations—at Martinsville, for example, where Vickers will drive the No. 55 for Michael Waltrip Racing. It doesn't seem like Mark Martin would be willing to add to his limited schedule and Michael Waltrip might not step out of the FOX Sports booth, but you never know.
Beyond that, Vickers is available, and once again, he's a Gibbs Nationwide driver. The problem is, he's in a worse spot in that series than Sadler. Vickers is now a frustrating 11th in points after an engine failure in Fontana. He's also got less of a need to push for seat time as an injury sub, as it's likely that he'll inherit the No. 55 full-time next year with Martin's departure.
When Kyle Busch earned a suspension from the November 2011 Cup race at Texas after wrecking Ron Hornaday under caution in a Truck event, McDowell was the substitute driver on call. He didn't do much, coming home three laps down in 33rd. That being said, in 10 Nationwide races for Gibbs in 2011 and 2012, he posted an average finish of 6.5 with nine top 10s and a worst finish of 12th.
Don't think for a minute that McDowell wouldn't be willing to ask Phil Parsons, his current Cup team owner, for a leave of absence to take over the No. 11. Aside from a ninth-place finish in the Daytona 500, Parsons runs a mostly start-and-park operation. Not only would McDowell have a chance to run full races, strong finishes might attract sponsorship that could follow him back to Parsons' No. 98 car.
Allmendinger's current commitments include a handful of IndyCar races for Penske Racing, including the Indianapolis 500 and a handful of Cup events for Phoenix Racing that includes Martinsville. But if Gibbs is willing to take a chance on him, a rejuvenated Allmendinger—who many said would never get a chance in a car as strong as the Cup ride he lost at Penske—could score some strong finishes.
Gibbs is well known for his Christian values, having written the 2009 book Game Plan For Life on the importance of his faith. Offering Allmendinger a shot at redemption after last year's drug-related suspension seems like a move that would fit fully within the context of that faith.
Wallace is one of Gibbs' prized development drivers, currently running a full Truck schedule for Kyle Busch Motorsports. In four Nationwide starts last year, he scored three top 10s and a pole at Dover, while leading 36 laps at Iowa. He also scored six wins in three years of K&N Pro Series East competition.
It might be a stretch to thrust the 19-year-old Wallace into such a high-profile ride and expect results, but keep in mind that it's exactly what Gibbs did in 2005 when he fired Jason Leffler from the No. 11 ride. Hamlin was one of three drivers to step in, and he posted three top-10 finishes in seven starts.
Wallace would give the Sprint Cup Series something that it hasn't yet had: a Drive for Diversity program graduate in a car that has a chance to win races. That might make him the most intriguing prospect of all.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.