FONTANA, Calif. — The last time Denny Hamlin drove on California’s venerable 2-mile oval, he had to be airlifted from the track. The wreck was on his mind the first time he drove into that fateful third turn again this weekend.
“The next time I came around, it was an afterthought,” Hamlin said. “And I haven’t thought about it since.”
That last-lap crash with bitter rival Joey Logano cost both men a chance to win at Fontana last March, and Kyle Busch slipped between them for NASCAR’s most spectacular finish of last season.
“It was a bad weekend for us, for sure, and obviously affected the rest of our season and beyond,” said Hamlin, who broke a vertebra when he smashed into the inside wall.
Hamlin and Logano are among several cars to watch as NASCAR’s new season gets into gear at one of the drivers’ favorite tracks today, but there’s probably no driver who wants a win in Fontana more than Hamlin.
“My engineer always asks me to send three tracks where I would most like to win,” said Hamlin, who starts 13th. “For me, California is No. 1 because we never made it to the finish last year. We had a great shot to win it, but we never made it. It would feel like we do have to get some redemption, and it would make a great story.”
Hamlin still hasn’t recaptured top form after the crash, which cost him nearly five full races and left him in back pain for months.
“Physically, I feel really good,” Hamlin said. “The best I’ve felt back-wise in a really long time – I mean years and years. I’m better than I was before the wreck, for sure.”
Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have a win yet this season, but the six-time Cup champion has five career victories at Fontana, the NASCAR track closest to his native San Diego County.
“It’d be great to get the win and get ourselves locked in the Chase, but I think we’re in a good position,” Johnson said.
Between Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s strong start to the season, Johnson’s longtime Fontana dominance, and the Hamlin-Logano feud, almost nobody is talking about the defending champion. Busch swept the weekend last year with his Nationwide victory, becoming the first Toyota driver and the first Joe Gibbs Racing driver to win a Cup race at Fontana.
The Fontana asphalt hasn’t been altered much in 17 years, and that benign neglect has turned this oval into one of the NASCAR circuit’s favorite tracks for racers.
“You could poll, and probably 42 out of 43 drivers would say, ‘Please do not change an old, broken-up racetrack,’ ” Hamlin said.
Fontana added 1,000 feet of SAFER barriers, but the drivers don’t want changes to the pavement. It’s wide enough for aggressive passing and unpredictable enough for crazy finishes, and the worn-out grooves reward the best drivers.
“It puts it more in the drivers’ hands, and I think that’s good,” Carl Edwards said.