- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Denny Hamlin received medical clearance from NASCAR and his doctors, and plans to start Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway, but don't look for him to be in the car long.
Assuming nothing changes during practice or qualifying, it will be the first race back for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver since suffering a compression fracture in his lower back on the final lap of the March 24 event at Auto Club Speedway in California.
JGR said exact plans will be determined at the track. Hamlin could start the No. 11 Toyota, then give way to a relief driver.
"Welcome back Denny!" NASCAR tweeted.
Mark Martin took Hamlin's place in the No. 11 car at Martinsville, and Brian Vickers drove at Texas, Kansas and Richmond.
Hamlin tweeted on Tuesday that he was cleared "just to start,'' reinforcing what he told ESPN.com the plan was two weeks ago and what he said last weekend at Richmond International Raceway when doctors did not clear him for that race.
"They all came to the conclusion they were happy with me starting Talladega and getting out when it's a safe time to get out,'' Hamlin said. "So ... we'll start our process at Talladega and then rescan again and try to go to Darlington."
Hamlin told ESPN.com at Kansas he would drop to the back of the pack at Talladega and ride around until the first caution, then give way to backup driver Brian Vickers.
By starting, Hamlin will collect all the points for whatever finish Vickers earns. Because Talladega is a 2.66-mile track, the change of drivers can be done under caution without losing a lap.
Hamlin said at RIR he doesn't anticipate problems making a quick change.
"I could do it pretty easy,'' he said. "Really, I am physically capable of doing the same things other than running. I just can't do that yet. Getting up and down I can do just as easy as I could before the injury. I really only had about a week and a half of severe pain from the actual spine itself.''
Hamlin has fallen out of the top 10 to 28th in points while sitting out the past five races. He is 71 points outside the top 20, where he must get over the next 17 races to be eligible for one of two wild-card spots determined by drivers inside the top 20 with the most wins.
JGR's Matt Kenseth is the only driver ranked between 11th and 20th with a win. He has two, but because of penalties imposed by NASCAR after his win at Kansas only one counts toward the Chase unless the sanctions are overturned in a May 8 appeal.
By starting Talladega, Hamlin will be one week ahead of the original prognosis that had him missing six races. He still has to have another scan on his spine next week and be cleared to drive at Darlington before making a full return.
Hamlin said he will consider having surgery during the offseason to repair any damage from this injury and other back issues he's had over the past few years. If not cleared for Darlington he said there could come a point when he has to consider surgery during the season.
"Obviously, if it goes past Darlington, our chances are crushed even harder,'' he said of making the Chase. "Eventually, you have to have a shutdown point of not going out there and racing for nothing at a point.
"A recovery on the kind of surgery that I would like to have is about a month-and-a-half or so. I could potentially come back maybe for the tail end of the year. It wouldn't be a season-ending.''
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
Denny Hamlin plans to start Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway, but don't look for him to be in the car long.