This is not an overstatement: the race at Fontana last Sunday was the most compelling three sustained hours of NASCAR in recent memory. There was arresting side-by-side racing and daring, hold-your-breath passes for the entire 400 miles. There was Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, the drivers who had the two fastest cars in the field and were in the throes of a bitter feud, battling on the last lap for the checkered flag. There was Logano ramming into Hamlin, sending both of them spinning out of control and opening the door for Kyle Busch to win the race.
There was Tony Stewart, frustrated with Logano for blocking him on the final restart of the race, taking a swing at the young driver on pit road. There was Hamlin, after his harrowing head-on wreck into an unprotected portion of the concrete wall at 160 miles per hour, crawling out of his car and collapsing onto the asphalt.
And there was Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular driver, finishing second on Sunday and ascending to the top of the points standings.
So many memorable snapshots from Fontana, yet all concern after the gripping race was for Hamlin. He was airlifted to a local hospital where it was determined that he'd suffered a compression fracture of the L1 vertebrae. He'll be out of the No. 11 Camry for at least six weeks, which means the earliest he could return would be for Darlington on May 11. His title hopes, so promising just days ago, are now gone for 2013.
Let's rev up the 'bag:
The reason Logano drove so aggressively last Sunday can be summed up in three words: He was frustrated.
A week earlier at Bristol, Hamlin spun Logano, who was in second-place and contending for the win. Logano stuck his head into Hamlin's cockpit after the race to express his displeasure, but was quickly pulled away by Hamlin's crewmembers. Then -- and this is probably what really caused Logano's anger to spike -- Hamlin belittled Logano over Twitter, telling the 22-year-old to "hush little child."
Logano, put simply, wasn't going to take it anymore. And after the race on Sunday -- but before he knew of Hamlin's injury -- he said that if he wasn't going to take the checkered flag, he was going to make damn sure that Hamlin wouldn't, either.
I've always thought very highly of Logano. I wrote a long feature on him near the end of his rookie season of 2009, when he drove for Joe Gibbs Racing, and back then it was widely forecasted in the garage that he was going to be the next big thing in NASCAR. That hasn't happened yet, but Logano, who is ninth in the standings, has a excellent shot of advancing to his first Chase this season in his first year with Penske Racing -- as long as he doesn't make any more enemies.
So expect Logano to be very low key and somewhat contrite at Martinsville. He certainly has a bull's eye on him right now, and the best way to deal with that is to give every driver in the field plenty of room, especially Tony Stewart. Which brings us to our next question.
Michael, there are plenty of drivers and crew chiefs in the garage who would agree with every point you make. I know I'm in the minority in the motor sports media (
On that final restart, Logano, not Stewart, spun his tires. So Stewart had more speed as they charged into the corner. I understand that racing etiquette usually gets thrown out the driver's side window late in races, but there were still a dozen laps to go when Logano moved far down the track to block the hard-charging Stewart. In my view, Logano could have let Stewart go and still would have had time to make up for spinning his tires. And ask yourself this: Would Jimmie Johnson, the gold-standard driver of this era, have pulled such a maneuver? I don't think so.
But Logano knew what he was doing. At some point, if you're a young driver trying to become established in the Cup series, you have to stand up for yourself. Logano did just that against a three-time champion with a notoriously short fuse.
It'll be interesting to see if Stewart -- who said he was going to "bust [Logano's] ass" in the heated moments after Fontana -- will be more bark than bite at Martinsville. But even if nothing happens between the two on the short track in Virginia, Stewart's words will have served a purpose. Because, and this is part of Stewart's racing genius, it's always the threat of his bite on the racetrack (meaning, the specter of him wrecking another driver) that is actually more effective than the bite itself. Drivers become so wary of him that they just stay out of his way, which is all he really wants.
Absolutely, Dave. Through five races in 2013, Earnhardt is the only driver in the series with five top-10 finishes. He's performed well on every type of track -- short, intermediate, and superspeedway. What's more, he's gained more positions (26) over the last 10 percent of the races than any other driver. Earnhardt's lack of concentration in the waning laps of an event used to be his fatal flaw, but no more.
At Martinsville, I expect him to contend for his first win of the year. During the last two spring races there, his average finish is 2.5. Earnhardt will undoubtedly surrender the points lead at some point in the coming weeks, but it won't happen at Martinsville, which is statistically his third-best track on the circuit (career average finish: 13.0) behind Bristol (11.6) and Atlanta (12.5).
Patrick, who qualified 40th last Sunday at Fontana and finished 26th, was not the first female to make the show in a Cup race at the two-mile oval. Shawna Robinson narrowly drove her way into the Cup race there in 2002, qualifying 43rd. Her day was cut short by a crash on Lap 53 and she wound up 42nd.
On April 7 at Martinsville Speedway, however, Patrick will be the first woman to ever run a Cup race at the short track. No woman has ever qualified at Martinsville, so it will be another history-making afternoon for Patrick when she fires her engine and takes the green flag.
Ah, Jim, Jim, Jim. Are you REALLY paying attention to what I'm writing? On March 22 I penned a piece on SI.com about Kasey Kahne being "the hottest driver in NASCAR," detailing the afternoon that his life changed (for the better, mind you) when he joined Hendrick Motorsports. And two days earlier, I had written about "the continued excellence of Brad Keselowski," and "the rise of Ricky Stenhouse Jr." and "the high quality of racing in recent weeks."
I'm not a mouthpiece for NASCAR, nor do I tell you it's sunny outside when it's raining. I try to be fair and objective in everything I write. Will I be critical if I believe the situation warrants? Absolutely. Does this anger some folks at NASCAR at times? I'm guessing so. But I've been covering this sport for over a decade, which has afforded me the experience to form strong opinions on different subjects.
But please, if you're going to attack me, next time don't cherry-pick a few paragraphs or items from one or two pieces. Examine the entire body of my recent work and then bring the heat if you feel it's justified. And get this, Jim: I personally think NASCAR is experiencing a dramatic rebirth this season. I'm hoping you'll be able to read all about the reasons in the magazine or on SI.com in the near future.
Have a happy Easter, everyone. Remember that the Cup boys and girl are off on Sunday. The series won't break again until mid-July.