When drivers were ordered to their cars after a rain delay of near four hours, Denny Hamlin wasn’t among them. Instead, Erik Jones was a surprise relief driver in Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota.
Having suffered neck spasms roughly 12 laps into Sunday’s Food City 500 in Support of Steve Byrnes, Hamlin received treatment during the rain delay, but he opted to remove himself from the car because he didn’t feel capable of winning.
Jones, who won last week’s NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Texas and finished fourth on Saturday at Bristol, was a likely candidate for his NASCAR Sprint Cup debut in relief of Kyle Busch later this season, but Hamlin’s exit pressed him into service earlier than expected.
“I pulled something in my neck to upper back,” Hamlin said in an interview with Fox Sports 1. “I started going backward because the pain was bothering me quite a bit. I stretched it out, and we'd been working it the last few hours.
“I'm not 100 percent. With this (Chase) format, it's all about winning, and there's no way I'd be able to compete for a win. It's just doing my team a complete injustice to run a bunch of laps.”
Consequently, it made sense to get some seat time for Jones, who had to start from the rear of the field after the stoppage because of the driver change.
Jones flew to Bristol during the hiatus and arrived five minutes before the drivers were recalled to the cars. Ultimately, he finished 26th, six laps down, though Hamlin gets credit for the result because he started the race.