2014 Auto Club 400: Denny Hamlin returns to Fontana seeking redemption

One year ago Denny Hamlin broke his back at Fontana. He returns to the track for the first time this weekend.

When Denny Hamlin left Auto Club Speedway a year ago, he was on a stretcher being transported to a local hospital following a last-lap crash with Joey Logano. Hamlin would be diagnosed with a compression fracture in his back, an injury that effectively ended his 2013 season.

In the 12 months since that day, Hamlin has experienced numerous ups and downs.

"I’ve taken this race and circled it as one where you really would like to get a win. It would be nice -- instead of retaliating -- to end in victory lane."-Denny Hamlin

The lows included missing four races as he recovered enough to return to the seat of the No. 11 Toyota, as well as enduring the worst slump of his career -- 16 straight races without a top 10.

The highs saw Hamlin win the season finale last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway to extend his streak of winning a race to eight consecutive years.

That momentum carried to Speedweeks, where Hamlin won the exhibition Sprint Unlimited, his qualifying race, and finished runner-up to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Daytona 500. Hamlin enters Fontana seventh in points and shows no ill-effects of the back injury that put his future in doubt.

Now, he returns to Fontana, and does so with one thing on his mind.

"This is a track where we really want to perform well at," Hamlin said Friday. "I've taken this race and circled it as one where you really would like to get a win and obviously be competitive Sunday. It would be nice -- instead of retaliating -- to end in victory lane."

Hamlin dismisses any notion of seeking retribution against Logano. But though they have spoken since, the relationship between Hamlin and Logano is still virtually nonexistent. Ironically, the two are parked next to one another in the Fontana garage.

"It really doesn't change anything," Hamlin said. "I spoke the same amount of words to Joey as my teammate Matt (Kenseth) and he's on the other side of me. It really doesn't matter. You're so focused on what you have to do to get better. It really is just a year."

Hamlin hasn't reflected much on the events of a year ago. The only time he was mindful of what happened was during his first lap of practice Friday, but those thoughts quickly subsided by the next lap.

"You're running such speeds here and you're on edge so much that the next time I came around it was an afterthought and I haven't thought of it since," he said.

The accident in question occurred as he and Logano raced side-by-side through Turns 3 and 4 toward the checkered flag. Following contact, Hamlin spun off of Turn 4 down the track and head-on into the inside retaining wall. He would climb out of his car under his own power, but quickly fell to the ground in severe pain.

Hamlin_1_-_1_medium
That the area where Hamlin hit wasn't covered with SAFER barrier is a point of contention for him and many others in the garage. An energy-absorbent wall has since been installed at the site of the crash. Nonetheless, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver doesn't understand why NASCAR doesn't mandate SAFER barriers on all walls surrounding the racing surface.

"Commonsense should come into play on some of the race tracks," Hamlin said. "We can hit inside walls at anywhere and we hit inside walls sometimes harder than we hit outside walls. For an outside organization to say you don't need it at this place because of odds or statistics, you're not going to hit here or it's a less dangerous spot is ridiculous. Anywhere that we have a concrete wall should be covered by SAFER barrier."

Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick expressed similar sentiments after hitting the unprotected front stretch wall during the Daytona 500. Harvick said Daytona, which is undergoing a massive renovation to its grandstands, should spend some money on installing SAFER barriers.

"(NASCAR) has to improve on getting SAFER barriers where they should be," Hamlin said. "It could save someone one day. It should be at the highest priority."

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