Commentary

Denny Hamlin full speed ahead

Updated: March 23, 2014, 10:55 AM ET
By Joe Breeze | ESPN.com

FONTANA, Calif. -- Four races. Four different winners.

Will a fifth driver emerge in Victory Lane this weekend at Auto Club Speedway?

That is one storyline we'll be tracking during Sunday's Auto Club 400 (3 p.m. ET, Fox). Here are five others:

Hamlin's house of horrors

Quick: Who won the 2013 Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway?

I'll give you a minute to Google it.

Now, which driver experienced a season-threatening back injury in a last-lap wreck in that race? Of course you knew it was Denny Hamlin. It's not often the winner of a Sprint Cup event gets trumped on race day, but Kyle Busch took a backseat to this story.

[+] EnlargeDenny Hamlin
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesSafety workers secure Denny Hamlin after a violent last-lap wreck in the 2013 Auto Club 400.

Hamlin, remember, was in a final-lap duel with former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano when the two cars tangled, sending the No. 11 Toyota head-on into an inside retaining wall. Hamlin staggered out of his car and was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where he was diagnosed with a compression fracture of the lower back. He missed the next four races.

On March 25, 2013, Hamlin tweeted a photo of himself in a hospital bed giving a thumbs-up with the message: "All good".

A year later, he's still trying to put that incident fully in his rearview.

"It was a bad weekend for sure and obviously affected the rest of our season and beyond," Hamlin told reporters Friday. "It's just you have to move on and you have to deal with the adversity and be stronger from it. That's what I'm trying to do...

"Coming in here, I think the only time I thought about the wreck was the first corner going off in Turn 3 the first lap of practice where you kind of think about what happened and things like that. But literally 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."

Hamlin, who has a history of degenerative back ailments, says he's healthier now than he's been in years. His focus remains trying to recapture the championship-contending form of 2010 and '12, when he won a combined 13 times.

Redemption, or revenge against Logano, isn't a consideration.

"Really, worrying about retaliating and holding grudges and things like that takes away from the time you need to be preparing for the upcoming event," Hamlin said. "Especially when you're on the track; it's hard enough to pass in these cars, so you have to concentrate in these cars at all times about what you're going to do to run the best lap you can and not, 'Hey, I need to get to this guy or that guy to retaliate.' It's just a different mindset now. It's not like it used to be in the '90s and '80s and things like that when we saw these spats. It's a different kind of racing."

Logano
Logano

Logano, too, has moved on.

"I feel like we're fine," the Penske Racing driver said last week at Bristol. "A year is a long time. It's over now."

Oddly, Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota and Logano's No. 22 Ford were parked alongside each other in the ACS garage Friday. Irony?

Hamlin downplayed the coincidence.

"I expected it -- we're close in points," he said. "Really, for us, it really doesn't matter too much. It really doesn't change anything. I spoke the same amount of words to Joey [Logano] 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."

Auto Club Speedway has been a house of horrors for Hamlin, who has finished 25th or worse in four of his previous six Fontana races -- including three DNFs.

California dreamin'? Hardly.

Perhaps a solid start to the season -- he finished second at Daytona and sixth at Bristol -- will provide some momentum Sunday.

"I've taken this race and circled it as one where you really would like to get a win and obviously be competitive when it comes Sunday," Hamlin said. "It's nice to, instead of retaliating, to end in Victory Lane."

The California Kid

Jimmie Johnson panic?

Four races in and zero wins for the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion?

What gives?

C'mon. Six-time champ Johnson wants to win as badly as anyone, but he's not willing to stray from a game plan he and crew chief Chad Knaus have worked to near perfection.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesCalifornia native Jimmie Johnson, a six-time Cup champion, feels right at home at Auto Club Speedway.

"We have been able to win multiple races a year with a certain mindset," Johnson said Friday. "I am not going to chase home runs. I'm looking at a smooth and consistent 26 races, and when we get a look at a home run, we are going to swing for it. But we are not stepping up to the plate every time trying to hit it out."

If Johnson delivers a grand slam, it's likely to happen at Auto Club Speedway, the California native's home track. Johnson is the career leader in wins here with five. He's also the leader in top-5s (12), laps led and average finish (5.7).

"Yeah, this is a good track for us," said Johnson, who qualified third. "It would be great to get the win and get ourselves locked into the Chase. But I think we are in a good spot -- we've been very competitive. We have had a shot to win a couple of races."

Indeed. It's not as if Johnson hasn't performed through the season's first four events. He opened with three consecutive top-six runs before a tire issue at Bristol left him with a 19th-place finish.

The worn 2-mile oval at Fontana is a welcome sight for Johnson & Co., who excel on low-grip-level racetracks.

"The character in the track continues to change, and the bumps," Johnson said. "Last year especially, the bumps were as big as I've ever seen them. The paving seams are very sensitive to run your right-side tires on. We have seen that in the NASCAR vehicles and also IndyCar. So I think those challenging elements are good for the No. 48."

Rookie fight

This year's rookie battle is shaping up to be a good one.

Rising stars Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson have exceeded early expectations. After four races, each driver already has a top-10.

But it hasn't been a joy ride. Far from it.

[+] EnlargeKyle Larson
Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR/Getty ImagesKyle Larson qualified 11th fastest for Sunday's Auto Club 400; fellow rookie Austin Dillon will start 20th.

"Nothing has really been easy. It's all been tough," Larson said. "Everything is tough in the Sprint Cup Series. I got a glimpse of it last year being able to run four races, so I understood how tough it was going to be this season. So nothing has really surprised me at all to start this season. Everybody races extremely hard all race long."

Dillon, of course, put the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet on the Daytona 500 pole and finished ninth in the race. He is 14th in the Cup standings. Larson is coming off his best effort of 2014, having finished 10th at rain-soaked Bristol. He is 22nd in points.

Larson, who replaced Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 41 Target car, has improved his production each weekend since a ho-hum 38th in the Daytona 500, finishing 20th at Phoenix and 19th at Las Vegas.

On Saturday at Fontana, the 21-year-old California native denied a couple of hard-charging Cup vets -- Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick -- to post his first Nationwide Series victory.

"It means the world to finally get it here in my home state ..." said Larson, who hails from Elk Grove. "Man, that was a blast racing out there, and I think it's going to be a heck of a race tomorrow in the Cup car, too.

"Having Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick right on our bumper those last 11 or so laps was intense, and I really didn't think I could hold them off, but I'm proud of myself for staying calm and not getting into the wall."

This year's rookie competition is a stark contrast to the tepid 2013 battle in which Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (three top-10s) trumped girlfriend Danica Patrick (one top-10) for the season-ending award.

Toyota's turn?

Chevrolet roared out of the gate with victories at Daytona (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and Phoenix (Kevin Harvick).

Ford joined the party with consecutive wins at Las Vegas (Brad Keselowski) and Bristol (Carl Edwards).

It won't be long before Toyota makes a run at Victory Lane -- there's just too much star power, and firepower, in the Joe Gibbs Racing camp.

Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch have five wins combined at Auto Club Speedway, although all three of Kenseth's victories were earned in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford.

But Kenseth turned the fastest lap in Friday qualifying (187.315 mph) and will start Sunday's Auto Club 400 from pole position.

"This is probably one of the best tracks we go to as far as passing with all the different lanes unless you're stuck on the top," Kenseth said. "There's a lot of options here. This place is really wide; it's very challenging as a driver, but very fun, as well."

Gordon streaking

Keep an eye on Jeff Gordon on Sunday.

Gordon
Gordon

The four-time Sprint Cup champion has started fast, opening the season with four consecutive top-10 finishes. He's tied with Edwards for third in the standings.

Gordon is a three-time winner at Fontana, but he is winless in his past 16 starts here. Still, he's been quick in practice all weekend and qualified sixth fastest Friday.

"This is traditionally a great track for us at Hendrick Motorsports," Gordon said. "I love this track. This is so much fun to drive with all the different grooves and lanes you can run on. And I think you'll hear that across the board.

"I'm just having a lot of fun. I've got a great race car and a great race team. We're just enjoying the season so far with the momentum that we've been able to have, and then to come here and have a strong car like we have here just really gets me excited about Sunday's race."

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