NASCAR saw nothing in the final lap of Sunday's race or its aftermath to warrant a penalty, but will likely have experts re-evaluate the uncovered part of the Auto Club Speedway wall that resulted in Denny Hamlin's lower back fracture.
Old rivals Hamlin and Joey Logano crashed while racing for the victory on the final lap, sparking an accident that sent the Joe Gibbs Racing driver hard into an inside wall not protected by the SAFER barrier. While Hamlin was being strapped to a backboard and airlifted to a Southern California hospital, Logano was on pit road scuffling with Tony Stewart and a host of crewmen angry over what they had perceived as a blocking move by the 22-year-old.
Tuesday, NASCAR said there would be no penalties stemming from either the incidents on the race track or pit road, though NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby added experts would almost certainly re-evaluate the part of the wall Hamlin struck and recommend changes if necessary. JGR announced that Hamlin suffered a compression fracture of his L1 vertebra in the crash; he will likely be sidelined for up to six weeks.
"The walls at California have been there since the very first day we raced," Darby said in a teleconference with reporters. "If that had been viewed as a high-risk or high-trouble spot, it would have probably been different. But now in light of that incident, I'm sure it will be re-looked at, and if the folks make recommendations that they think will help the safety there, I'm sure the speedway will follow suit."
NASCAR often consults with Dr. Dean Sicking at the University of Nebraska's Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, which developed the Steel And Foam Energy Reduction barrier. It's not uncommon for race track barriers to be altered or redesigned in reaction to crashes -- a Jeff Gordon hit at Las Vegas, an Elliott Sadler incident at Pocono and a Jeff Fuller accident at Kentucky all resulted in changes to walls or barriers at those facilities.
"One of the points they look at is frequency of impacts, and where the more prevalent parts of impact are, and those are addressed first," Darby said. "As we go to each race track and that same evaluation happens, there's a constant growth of SAFER barriers and closing gates and redesigning gates and wheel fences and the whole project. But it's an evolution. In light of Denny's accident, I am sure there will be more investigations done on that area of the race track. I also feel very positive about the fact that if a recommendation is made to install additional SAFER barriers in those areas, that the speedway will be very proactive in helping getting that resolved."
Hamlin's crash was a result of racing on the last lap between him and Logano, who had been feuding since on-track contact involving the two a week earlier at Bristol Motor Speedway. In that race, Hamlin spun Logano, sending the No. 22 banging into the wall on the short track. Sunday at the 2-mile speedway, Hamlin got to the inside of Logano, who pinched the No. 11 car up the race track and sent it sliding down into the outside wall. "That's what he gets," Logano said immediately after the race, and before he knew Hamlin had been injured.
NASCAR did not see the move as retaliatory. Why?
"Probably the simple fact that it was the last lap of the race and the last time they were both going to see Turns 3 and 4," Darby said. "They were side-by-side. ? If somebody was in the mind to retaliate, they probably would have been lined up nose-to-tail, or somebody would have drove into the other car and spun him around. But in this case, that is so far from the opposite that it never even crossed anybody's mind that I'm aware of, that paid attention to the race, that (retaliation) was part of it."
NASCAR has a long history of not penalizing drivers for what it views as racing incidents, and Sunday was no exception. "The competition today is so close, and the racing is so good," Darby said. "Besides, the subjectivity of trying to define whether somebody blocked or just changed without a turn signal -- we don't need to introduce that into what we're doing right now."
Emotions immediately following the checkered flag in Fontana were heated, with Stewart and some of his crewmen at Stewart-Haas Racing -- including Tony Gibson, crew chief for Danica Patrick -- confronting Logano on pit road. Stewart was upset over what he viewed as blocking by Logano on the final restart. Shoves were exchanged, but to NASCAR, no lines were crossed.
"A few years ago, we backed away from micromanaging drivers' emotions," Darby said. "You would hope in today's world that if somebody didn't race they would be upset about it for whatever reason. That's what our drivers do, they try to win races. ? A couple of drivers at the end of the race arguing a little bit doesn't create a foul in our world today. The crews did a great job of managing their drivers to make sure it didn't cross the line to where it was physical violence or anything like that. That's just what you would hope. That's just another example of the state of competition in NASCAR racing and the disappointment that comes sometimes when you don't win the race. I don't see any foul there at all."
Darby said NASCAR engineers have been in contact with officials at JGR, and plan on examining Hamlin's car. Hamlin was released from Loma Linda University Medical Center on Monday, and wrote Tuesday afternoon on Twitter that he was en route to see Charlotte neurosurgeon and spinal specialist Dr. Jerry Petty. Following that visit, it was revealed Hamlin would likely miss up to six weeks.
In order to return, Darby said Hamlin would first have to be cleared medically, and then surmised the driver would take some shakedown laps to see how he feels in the car.
"It starts with the medical experts," he said. "I don't believe they are going to sign off on Denny competing if they don't believe that he can. And then from there, a lot of it is Denny himself and saying, 'Yeah, look, I'm OK.' Him being out there racing, and not being competitive, isn't good for him or the team or anybody else. So I think there's enough responsibility amongst the drivers and I think there's enough professionalism that if they can't do it, they will say they can't do it and put a replacement driver in the car. But all that is yet to be seen, with the majority of the decisions being made by the medical folks first."
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