Martin finishes in top 10 in No. 11
April 07, 2013, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
Video: Rough pit stop for No. 11
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Denny Hamlin's primary responsibility throughout his tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing has fallen under the lone heading of "driver." Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, he took a cue from his team owner and accepted another job title.
Even though injury sidelined him for Sunday's STP Gas Booster 500, Hamlin still played an active role with the team by providing feedback, advice and encouragement for veteran substitute Mark Martin, who drove the No. 11 Toyota to a 10th-place finish in Hamlin's absence.
The performance was not just a byproduct of Martin's years of expertise or the Gibbs team's preparation at one of its best tracks, but also a result of a working relationship that quickly jelled over the course of a race weekend.
"I didn't know him personally, just knew him as a racer," said Martin, who will return to Michael Waltrip Racing next weekend after the one-race stint for JGR. "I'm really impressed with how engaged he is. That's why I'm convinced 100 percent that when he gets back in the race car, he will be a better driver than he ever has been before. He's going to see things and learn things. He wants to -- he's here instead of sitting at home."
But if Hamlin learned from the experience, so did Martin, even though he has 22 years and 596 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts on his weekend counterpart. What Hamlin does have is a sixth sense for navigating Martinsville, where he's won four times, making the job of offering pointers to the 54-year-old veteran that much easier.
"He's obviously a guy that's been around longer than anyone that's driving these cars, but wants to be treated like he's a rookie," Hamlin said. "He constantly wants to learn, and he's willing to take in any information you'll give him. I think that's why he's been in the sport as long as he has, is because he's continued to learn, and he's still the Mark Martin from the 1990s."
Martin's day was far from a smooth one. After struggling to adapt to Hamlin's setup in practice and qualifying Friday and Saturday, Martin started 35th in the 43-car field. He battled to stay on the lead lap early while searching frantically for elusive grip from the front tires, but Hamlin made helpful suggestions on alternate racing grooves to make Martin's car handle.
With Hamlin's advice on file, Martin methodically moved up before a botched pit stop slowed his progress near the midway point of the 500-lapper. Martin stopped for service on Lap 254 during the sixth of 12 caution periods in the race, but the left-front tire was improperly mounted when he tried to leave his pit stall. His crew fixed the issue, but did so outside the designated pit box, drawing a penalty and sending him to the back of the field for the restart.
From there, it was a matter of survival to work back toward the top 10.
"This is one day I could've used six or seven hundred laps," Martin said of his late charge. "We had a pretty good race car, probably not a winner, but a top-10 car because we got there after all the struggles. … Everybody did a great job. I would've liked to deliver a better result for them, but we fought some issues and had a good day. We worked as a team well today."
There were few team players bigger on the No. 11 crew than Hamlin, who was at the track as a consultant all three days at Martinsville and sat atop the team's pit box for Sunday's main event. He plans on doing the same next weekend at Texas, but says he'll take care not to overdo it as his back heals from his March 24 crash at Auto Club Speedway.
"I planned on going to all the races," Hamlin said. "I didn't realize the physical toll that being up and being at the track three days in a row would have, so I may try to limit my time going forward to just a couple of days. But I want to do whatever it takes to get back in the car as soon as possible, and really, rest is the only thing that can really do that."
Until then, the waiting -- and watching his car being driven by someone else -- might be the hardest part.
"I thought I was over it during practice and everything, but really, the start of the race and all that part, that hurt the most," Hamlin said. "Now hopefully it won't be as bad the second, third, fourth race into it, so I'll just do everything I can to get back."
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