BRISTOL, Tenn. – The Food City 500 restarted Sunday night without a Sprint Cup star.
Erik Jones replaced Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 Toyota after a red flag of nearly four hours at Bristol Motor Speedway. Hamlin told Fox Sports One that he hurt himself on Lap 12.
“I pulled something in my neck to upper back,” he said. “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 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.”
Hamlin is qualified to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup by virtue of his March 29 victory at Martinsville Speedway. Jones hadn’t raced a Sprint Cup car before but has excelled in the Xfinity Series for JGR, scoring his first win at Texas Motor Speedway last week and starting from the pole position Saturday.
“It’s better to have Erik come and run a few laps and get used to these Cup cars,” Hamlin said. “We know where he’s going to be a in a few years.”
Hamlin was fifth when the race was stopped after 22 laps. Jones dropped to the rear at the green flag, putting him 37th as the last driver on the lead lap.
Hamlin said his Camry was strong enough to score his second victory at Bristol.
“We felt I had a race winner, we just didn’t have a race-winning driver,” he said. “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.”
Because Hamlin started the race, he will receive the points earned by Jones’ finish, and Jones will not be credited with a Sprint Cup start.
The last time a NASCAR driver made his de-facto Sprint Cup debut during a race was at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July 2004. Martin Truex Jr. took over the No. 8 Chevrolet in relief of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was recovering from burns suffered in a sport-car crash in Sonoma, Calif.
Truex made his “official” debut in Sprint Cup three months later at Atlanta Motor Speedway.