Trying to replace Denny Hamlin, one of the fastest and most competitive drivers on the Sprint Cup circuit, is no easy task. Yet because of Hamlin's injury at Auto Club Speedway two weekends ago, that's exactly what Mark Martin and Brian Vickers will have to do for the next few weeks at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Martin will take the wheel of Hamlin's No. 11 FedEx Toyota at Martinsville Speedway this weekend, while Vickers will fill the seat for the balance of Hamlin's absence—likely the next four races, which come at Texas, Kansas, Richmond and Talladega.
The idea is to keep the No. 11 car in the hunt for the owners' points championship, something that Martin and Vickers know well as drivers who share the No. 55 Toyota at Michael Waltrip Racing. Initially, the hope had been for Martin to run all of the races while Hamlin was gone, with Vickers taking over Martin's races at MWR, but that deal was apparently vetoed by sponsor Aaron's.
Either way, the goal for Gibbs and the No. 11 team in the meantime is to score decent finishes that keep their momentum strong for when Hamlin returns. But judging by past performance—and by the fact that Hamlin excels at some of the tracks he'll miss—Martin, Vickers and Gibbs may be fighting an uphill battle.
Driver Stats: Martin usually skips Martinsville when running a limited schedule, meaning he hasn't competed there since 2011. In six Martinsville races with Rick Hendrick, he scored four top-10s, including a best finish of second in October 2010. Martin's two career wins at the track came in the spring races of 1992 and 2000.
Team Stats: Martinsville is one of Hamlin's best tracks—a place where he won four times in six starts between 2008 and 2010. The No. 11 team has led at least 12 laps in 11 of the past 13 Martinsville races, although mechanical failure there ended Hamlin's title hopes last fall.
Outlook: Martin was brought in to score a strong finish at Martinsville, and that's exactly what people should expect from him. The team knows how to win on the paper clip-shaped oval, and Martin will have some of the best equipment he's had to work with in years. A win is definitely possible.
Driver Stats: Texas has never been too kind to Vickers, save for a pole in the fall of 2006. He's never finished better than 12th there, which he did in his first-ever Texas Cup start, and his average finish of 23.9 is his fourth worst among active tracks.
Team Stats: Since sweeping both Texas races in 2010, Hamlin has fallen off there, never finishing better than 12th. Gibbs cars have only taken three wins in 64 all-time starts at Texas, posting an average finish of 17.0—fifth worst of all active tracks.
Outlook: Don't expect anything special. Not only will Vickers be getting acclimated to the No. 11 team, but the team also isn't all that special at Texas when they're not already on top of their game.
Driver Stats: Vickers has run seven races at Kansas, posting an average finish of 17.9 in that time. His best finish was eighth place in 2006, while his lone DNF came due to engine failure in 2009.
Team Stats: With only nine top-10s in 38 starts, Gibbs cars have an average finish of 18.2 at Kansas, making it the team's second-worst track historically. With that being said, however, Hamlin did win the spring Kansas race last year, coming from the fourth starting spot to take the victory.
Outlook: There's no reason not to expect Vickers to finish in the top half of the field at Kansas. He's consistent there, and in better equipment than he's ever had at the track, he might even crack the top 10.
Driver Stats: Since Vickers won the pole in his debut Richmond start in 2004, he's had his share of struggles. Despite three top-10s and only one DNF, Vickers has a poor average finish of 24.9, finishing on the lead lap only four times in 14 starts. However, during his best season in 2009, Vickers added a second pole and tallied finishes of 15th and seventh.
Team Stats: Richmond is the host of Hamlin's annual Short Track Showdown, and for good reason: Not only is it his home track, but he's also especially strong there. He has two wins and an average finish of 8.1 in 14 starts, including laps led in 11 of his 14 starts; in fact, in spring of 2008, Hamlin led an astounding 381 laps from the pole.
Outlook: Replacing Hamlin at his home track should be especially tough, but Vickers has shown the ability to race well there in the right situation. A top-20 shouldn't be out of the question.
Driver Stats: Vickers will return to the track where he scored his maiden Cup victory in the fall of 2006, and a track where he has shown a consistent ability to finish up front. In fact, he has six top-10s in 14 starts, leading laps in 10 of those races.
Team Stats: Hamlin's average finish (17.9) is better than Vickers' (20.1), but Hamlin has never won at Talladega and only has five top-10s in the same amount of starts as Vickers. He's also failed to lead a lap in three of the past four Talladega races. Gibbs hasn't won at Talladega since sweeping both races in 2008 with Kyle Busch in the spring and Tony Stewart in the fall.
Outlook: Barring incident, there's a chance that Vickers could score the best finish of his four-race stint at Talladega. He'll run up front all day, will most likely lead a handful of laps and could challenge for the victory at the end of the day.
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