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 last season 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 last week. "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 in the wreck and missed a month. "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 racetrack," said Hamlin, who starts 13th in today's Auto Club 400. "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."
Winner, winner: After four Sprint Cup races, there have been four winners all but clinching a berth in the season-ending Chase for the Championship.
Trouble is, if NASCAR keeps getting new winners each week, there will be more race champions than spots in the Chase (16).
Carl Edwards' solution? Get two victories.
"There's been a lot of talk about it," said Edwards, who won last week at Bristol. "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."
Oldie but goodie: The Fontana asphalt hasn't been altered much in 17 years, and that 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.
Back again: Paul Menard, who missed Friday's practice and qualifying after his daughter was born, had returned to Fontana and will race today, the Associated Press reported. He'll have to start in the back for missing qualifying. Menard was in North Carolina with his wife, Jennifer, who gave birth to their first child, Remi Barbara Christine Menard, on Tuesday.