FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — The last time Denny Hamlin drove on California's venerable 2-mile oval, he had to be airlifted from the track. The wreck 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. "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 when he smashed into the inside wall. "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 race track," said Hamlin, who starts 13th. "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. It would feel like we do have to get some redemption, and it would make a great story."
Hamlin still hasn't recaptured top form after the crash, which cost him nearly five full races and left him in back pain for months.
"Physically, I feel really good," Hamlin said. "The best I've felt back-wise in a really long time — I mean years and years. I'm better than I was before the wreck, for sure."
Five more things to watch in NASCAR's fifth race of the season:
SIX-TIME'S SIXTH TIME?: Jimmie Johnson doesn't have a win yet this season, but the six-time Cup champion has five career victories at Fontana, the NASCAR track closest to his native San Diego County. He is the smart-money favorite for Sunday, but Johnson never gets overconfident despite his long history of success in Southern California.
"It'd be great to get the win and get ourselves locked in the Chase, but I think we're in a good position," Johnson said.
OLDIE BUT GOODIE: The Fontana asphalt hasn't been altered much in 17 years, and that benign neglect has turned this 2-mile oval into one of the NASCAR circuit's favorite tracks for racers.