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Posted: Sunday, March 23rd 2014 at 3:30am

Hamlin, Logano back at Fontana after fateful wreck

By Greg Beacham, AP Sports Writer
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Sunday marks the first return for Denny Hamlin to Auto Club Speedway since this crash in March of 2013 that sidelined the Virginia driver for five races with a broken vertebra. / Photo: Jeff Gross/Getty Images
FONTANA, CA - 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. "But you've got to move on and you've got to deal with the adversity and be stronger from it, and that's what I'm trying to do."

Hamlin and Logano are among several cars to watch as NASCAR's new season gets into gear at one of the drivers' favorite tracks Sunday, 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, and maybe they will spend a little bit more extra effort on that particular race track," 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."

Five more things to watch in NASCAR's fifth race of the season:

SIX-TIME'S SIXTH TIME?: 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. He is the smart-money favorite for Sunday, but Johnson never gets overconfident despite his long history of success in Southern California.

"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.

OLDIE BUT GOODIE: The Fontana asphalt hasn't been altered much in 17 years, and that benign neglect has turned this 2-mile 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 after last year's wreck, 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.

CLEAN SWEEP: 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 at this track.

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.

WINNER WINNER: After four races, NASCAR has four different race winners who figure they have all but clinched a berth in the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Trouble is, if NASCAR keeps getting new winners each week, there will be more race champions than spots in the Chase (16).

Edwards' solution? Get two wins.

"There's been a lot of talk about it," said Edwards, who won last week at Bristol. "I've been listening to the radio guys a lot, and everybody is assuming that you win and you're in, and that's definitely not the case. ... You're going to have to have a win, I believe, to be in the Chase. So now that we've checked that box, we need to go get another win, and I think then we'll be guaranteed to be in it."

BAD NEIGHBORHOOD: Although the former teammates' grudge has clearly cooled, everybody can't help watching to see if Hamlin and Logano get next to each other on the track.

Thanks to the points standings, Hamlin (seventh) and Logano (sixth) are even next to each other in the Fontana garage.

"For us, it really doesn't matter too much," Hamlin said. "I spoke the same amount of words to Joey as I did to my teammate Matt (Kenseth), and he's on the other side of me."

WDUN will have live MRN Radio coverage of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 from Auto Club Speedway beginning at 2 pm Sunday afternoon on 102.9 FM and 550 AM.
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