NASCAR at Fontana, Calif. Sunday 3 p.m. (WJZY) (WRAZ)

For Denny Hamlin, Auto Club Speedway provides extra motivation

jutter@charlotteobserver.comMarch 21, 2014 

— What is Denny Hamlin looking for this weekend at Auto Club Speedway?

Well, a victory for one, to help ensure his participation in this season’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

But what else? Revenge? Redemption? All are on the table as Hamlin returns to the site of a last-lap wreck that left him sidelined for a month last year and knocked him out of the championship hunt.

“Obviously, Fontana is a place where I have been looking forward to returning to. We were leading the race on the last lap last year, and never made it to the finish,” Hamlin said. “The accident happened and I missed a few races, but I think I’m a better driver because of it and a better person because of it.

“Being forced out of the car with the injury really gave me some perspective.”

On the final lap of last year’s Auto Club 400, Hamlin was in the lead and in a fierce battle with Joey Logano. The two made contact with Kyle Busch fast approaching. Hamlin’s car crashed into the inside retaining wall, while Busch captured the victory.

Hamlin was diagnosed with a compression fracture in his lower back and was forced to sit out the next four races.

Hamlin has never won at Fontana. His best finish of third came in August 2008.

“Every driver obviously wants to win every race they are in, but this one means a little bit more to me,” Hamlin said. “I would love another chance to be out front on the last lap, and this time, finish it off.”

Hamlin ended a disappointing 2013 season on a high note, winning the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. This season, he has two top-10 finishes in four races, including a pole and sixth-place finish last weekend at Bristol, Tenn.

Winning solves most problems in racing, but Hamlin said he’s concentrating on things other than retribution for last season’s incident with Logano.

“A lot of it is wanting to get better and we’re taking baby steps back to where we were in 2010 and ’12, really, and a strong championship contender. It takes a lot of work to do that,” Hamlin said. “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 seems to have bigger goals and loftier expectations on his mind than simple revenge.

“Coming in here, I think the only time I thought about the wreck was the first corner going off in Turn 3 in the first lap of practice where you kind of think about what happened and things like that,” he said. “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. I’ve taken this race and circled it as one where you really would like to be competitive when it comes Sunday.

“It’d be nice, instead of retaliating, to end in Victory Lane.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.

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