NASCAR returns to Fontana this weekend with a tough act to follow.
Last year’s Sprint Cup race with its wild ending at Auto Club Speedway was viewed by many as the most exciting race of the season.
As the drivers battled side-by-side for the lead on the last turn of the last lap, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin crashed into each other, Kyle Busch shot past them for the win and Logano and Tony Stewart got into a fight on pit road after the race.
But there was a sour end to the frenzy as Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota crashed head-on into an inside wall and he suffered a compression fracture in his lower back, forcing the Virginian to miss the next four races.
This year a recovered Hamlin and the rest of the Cup series return for the Auto Club 400 on Sunday amid early-season parity in the series — with four drivers having won the first four races.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500, Kevin Harvick edged past Earnhardt to prevail in Phoenix, Brad Keselowski won in Las Vegas and Carl Edwards endured the rain-delayed race last Sunday in Bristol, Tenn., for his victory.
It’s a repeat of last year, when the season opened with five winners in the first five events. (The record is 10 different winners at the start of the 2000 season.)
Earnhardt and Harvick drive Chevrolets and Keselowski and Edwards drive Fords, so the only manufacturer without a Cup win so far this year is Toyota.
But in last year’s Fontana race, Busch’s No. 18 Toyota was strong throughout, leading 125 of the race’s 200 laps on the two-mile oval. And as Logano and Hamlin collided on the last lap, Busch was about to charge past them for the lead.
“I was coming even if they didn’t end up wrecking,” Busch said in notes released by his Joe Gibbs Racing team. “It was a crazy finish.”
Before Edwards’ win last weekend in Bristol, the veteran was asked about returning to California and he still was talking about last year’s race.
“I hate that Denny got hurt, obviously, but that race was one of the best races that I’ve seen,” said Edwards, who finished fourth that day.
“We got done with the race and Tony and Joey were over there throwing stuff at each other,” Edwards said, referring to Logano throwing a water bottle at Stewart during their shoving match. “It’s like, ‘This is NASCAR.’ There were people three-wide at the end passing and wrecking each other.”
Stewart went after Logano on pit road because Stewart was angry at how Logano had blocked him from passing on the race’s final restart.
As for Logano and Hamlin, both said last week they’ve put last year’s race behind them, even if their relationship remains frosty.
“You can hold grudges all you want, but it’s not going to make you any faster, and it’s not going to get you any closer to a championship,” Hamlin said.
Logano, in turn, said “I feel like we’re fine. A year is a long time. It’s over now.”
Six-time and defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson holds the record for most Cup wins at the Fontana track with five, followed by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and former champion Matt Kenseth, who each have three wins.
Drivers also will use NASCAR’s new knockout-style qualifying system at Fontana for the first time Friday to set the starting order.
The first 25-minute session features all 43 drivers, with the 24 fastest advancing to a 10-minute second round. The 12 fastest cars in that round advance to a final five-minute session to determine who wins the pole position.
NASCAR in Irwindale
In conjunction with NASCAR’s return to Fontana, one of the sport’s minor league series, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, returns to Irwindale Speedway on Saturday night for the NAPA 150.
It’s the first time the series has raced at the paved, half-mile Irwindale oval since mid-2011. Qualifying starts at 4:45 p.m. and the race is at 8:30 p.m.