After trading barbs on Twitter a week ago, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano actually traded paint on Sunday, throwing away their chances to win the Auto Club 400 by banging each other into oblivion on the final lap at Auto Club Speedway.
But it was Logano's row with Tony Stewart that led to the most heated exchange of the season so far, first as Stewart tried to get a piece of Logano on pit road and later as the three-time champion roasted the 22-year-old with criticism that turned very personal.
The Hamlin-Logano feud, which began last week at Bristol when Hamlin's attempted bump-and-run sent Logano's Ford spinning into the wall, escalated at Fontana, as Hamlin drove to the outside of Logano to start the final lap and the drivers traded shots until they wrecked in Turn 3 – to the benefit of Kyle Busch, who was running third at the time and won the race.
Logano was credited with a third-place finish, but Hamlin's car slammed nose-first into the inside wall. Hamlin was airlifted to a local hospital for precautionary evaluation.
But it was Logano's block of Tony Stewart on the final restart on Lap 190 that had Stewart seething after the race, to the point where he nosed in front of Logano's car on pit road (stopping its progress), climbed out and confronted the young driver before crew members intervened.
Logano acknowledged that the block was a deliberate attempt to win the race.
"I had to throw the block there," Logano said. "That was a race for the lead. I felt if the 14 (Stewart) got underneath me, that was going to be the end of my opportunity to win the race, so I was just trying to protect the spot I had. I was actually pedaling, because I couldn't keep the 18 (race leader Kyle Busch) aligned (in front of Logano's No. 22 Ford, as the rules require on a restart).
"I was actually faster than the 18 getting our tires hooked up. And then I'm trying to stagger myself making sure I don't beat him to the line, and then I had to block the 14 because I was pedaling it. I'll talk to him and we'll see what happens."
Stewart was having none of it.
"He's going to learn a lesson," Stewart said. "He's run his mouth long enough… He's nothing but a little rich kid who's never had to work in his life, so he's going to learn what us working guys who had to work our way up… how it works.
"He has the choice to do that. He's in control of his car. But if he ever turns down across in front of me again – I don't care what lap it is – he won't make it through the other end of it… I'm tired of these guys doing that stuff, especially out of a kid that's been griping about everybody else – and then he does that the next week… send Denny to the hospital and screw our day up.
"He's talked the talk, but he hasn't walked the walk yet. He's always got his crew guys walking the walk for him."
Both Stewart and Logano will have to let things simmer for two weeks. The next NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race is April 7 at Martinsville, where frayed tempers are commonplace.
Victory thicker than blood?
Even though his brother Kyle was the race leader for the final restart with 11 laps to go, Kurt Busch made his move, taking the front row three-wide to the outside after Kyle took the green.
Kurt said he was glad his brother eventually won the race, but he didn't regret taking his own shot at victory.
"In the end, I could have followed Kyle and just wanted to apologize to him for putting it three- and four-wide on the restart, because I'm hungry and going for the win, and it's not normally a move you would make if you are pushing a brother," Kurt said.
"I could have pushed him out to the lead earlier and maybe he could have held off the 22 (Joey Logano) and the 11 (Denny Hamlin), but I messed him up on the restart and I told him, I'm going for the win, and I am not going for anything less."
Update: Hamlin's injury sidelines him for six weeks
Only through an exceptional set of circumstances will Denny Hamlin keep his perfect record of making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup intact, given that a spinal compression fracture is expected to sideline the Joe Gibbs Racing driver for at least six weeks.
In a last-lap crash in Sunday's Auto Club 400 at Fontana, Calif., Hamlin suffered the fracture of his L1 (first lumbar) vertebra, the uppermost in the lumbar section of the spine. Because of heavy post-race traffic, Hamlin was airlifted to Loma Linda Medical Center (near San Bernardino) from the race track and spent Sunday night there.
Released from the hospital Monday evening, Hamlin flew home to Charlotte and was evaluated Tuesday by neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, according to a statement released Tuesday night by JGR.
"Dr. Petty determined that Hamlin will not require surgery, but will need time to properly heal, which is estimated around six weeks time," the statement read. "Dr. Petty will make the determination when Hamlin will be able to return to racing this season."
The absence will put Hamlin's prospects of qualifying for the Chase in serious jeopardy. The only Cup rookie ever to qualify for the Chase (2006), Hamlin has been part of NASCAR's playoff in each of his seven full seasons in the series.
No replacement has been named to drive Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota Camry, but one logical candidate would be Elliott Sadler, who drives the No. 11 Nationwide Series Camry for JGR and who has three victories in 430 starts in the Cup series.
If Hamlin is out for six weeks, he will miss five races. That almost certainly will prevent him from making the top 10 in the standings on points. Conceivably, Hamlin could qualify as a wild card by winning multiple races after he returns, but to do so, he would have to finish the first 26 races between 11th and 20th, inclusive, in the standings.