Fontana, CA – It's a good thing the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is taking its first break of the season next weekend after a very wild and chaotic race on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.
The rivalry between Denny Hamlin and his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Joey Logano, reached new heights when both drivers made contact and crashed while battling for the lead on the final lap in the Auto Club 400. That allowed third-place runner Kyle Busch to slip by and steal the win.
Hamlin crashed hard into the inside retaining wall in turn 4. His car lifted slightly off the ground and spun around when it ricocheted off of the wall. Hamlin was awake and alert when he was transported by ambulance to the track's infield care center. The 32-year-old driver was then airlifted to a nearby hospital for further observation. JGR team president J.D. Gibbs said Hamlin would be OK.
Hours after the race, JGR released a statement regarding Hamlin's condition, stating, "Hamlin complained of lower back pain at the track's infield medical center and was transported to a local hospital for further evaluation. Hamlin will remain at the hospital overnight for observation."
The last-lap clash between Hamlin and Logano at Fontana comes one week after the two were involved in an altercation at Bristol Motor Speedway. Hamlin hit the back of Logano and spun him out late in the race. Both drivers had words with each other following the conclusion of that event, which then led to a shoving match between both of their teams. Hamlin and Logano later traded jabs on Twitter.
"(Hamlin) probably shouldn't have done what he did last week, so that's what he gets," Logano said.
Logano finished third, despite making contact with the outside wall.
Hamlin and Logano's latest run-in was just part of the drama that unfolded at this 2-mile Southern California racetrack.
After the 400-mile event concluded, Tony Stewart got into a physical altercation with Logano on pit road after Stewart was furious with Logano for blocking him during a restart in the closing laps.
"For a guy that's been complaining about how everybody else has been driving here, and then for him to do that, it's a double standard," Stewart said. "He makes the choice. He makes the decision to run us down there. And when you run a driver down there, then you take responsibility for what happens after that.
"He's a tough guy on pit road, as soon as one of his crew guys gets in the middle of it. Until then, he's a scared little kid. Then he wants to sit there and throw a water bottle at me. So, he's going to learn a lesson. He can run his mouth off on Twitter and stuff all he wants to tonight. I've got plenty of people who are going to watch for that. It's just time he learns a lesson. He's run his mouth long enough, and he's nothing but a little rich kid that has never had to ever work in his life. So he's going to learn with us working guys that have worked our way up. That's how it works."
Stewart, the three-time series champion and winner of this race one year ago, had to be pulled away from Logano by crew members from Danica Patrick's team. Stewart co-owns Patrick's car. Members from Logano's Penske Racing team also intervened.
"I had to throw the block there," Logano said in explaining why he blocked Stewart on the restart. "That was a race for the lead. I felt if the 14 (Stewart) got underneath me, that was going to be the end of my opportunity to win the race. So I was just trying to protect the spot I had."
Busch put on a dominating performance by leading 125 of 200 laps. Logano took the lead from Busch with seven laps to go and then Hamlin followed Logano to take second.
"I was hoping I could get by them before they wrecked," Busch said. "When they both went to the bottom side of (turns) 3 and 4, I was thinking this was golden. I've got enough up here, and I can make this happen. I put my foot to it and drove around on the outside of them before they started crashing, or maybe as they were crashing, I'm not sure.
"It feels so good to finally win. We weren't going to win if it wasn't for those two battling. If they would have been in single file and just racing, it would have gone down in that order."
Busch scored a weekend-sweep at Fontana. He won the 300-mile Nationwide Series race here on Saturday. Busch claimed his 25th career Sprint Cup victory but his first since April 2012 at Richmond (32 races ago). He also gave JGR and Toyota its first Cup victories at this track.
"To get Joe Gibbs here in victory lane in California, that's special," he said. "To get TRD and Toyota in victory lane here in California, of course that's great, too. It's their home. They're not too far from here."
JGR and Toyota have won nine straight Nationwide races at Fontana.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s second-place finish allowed him to take a 12-point lead over defending series champion Brad Keselowski, who placed 23rd.
"I really wasn't worried about those guys too much and how they were wrecking and all," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I was just glad to get through and get a good run."
Earnhardt is the only driver who has recorded top-10 finishes in the first five races this season. Keselowski came to Fontana with four consecutive top-5s.
Carl Edwards finished fourth, followed by Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Paul Menard, Kasey Kahne, who won at Bristol, and Ryan Newman completed the top-10. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were 11th and 12th, respectively.
Stewart finished 22nd, while Hamlin was credited with 25th. Danica Patrick placed one spot behind Hamlin in 26th.
The next Sprint Cup race is April 7 at Martinsville Speedway.