When did Joey Logano, whose career got off to a dubious start after Randy LaJoie christened him “Sliced Bread,’’ (as in, “the greatest thing since . . .’’), suddenly become a lightning rod of controversy in NASCAR?
Logano, the 22-year-old Sprint Cup driver from Middletown, Conn., certainly painted himself in a none-too-flattering light in last week’s Auto Club 400 at Fontana, Calif., where he was involved in a last-lap wipeout of former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin as the drivers raced side by side for a victory that wound up going to Kyle Busch.
Logano, in his first year driving the No. 22 Ford fielded by Penske Racing, finished third at Fontana.
But Hamlin spun out and heavily impacted an inside retaining wall near the entrance of pit road at Auto Club Speedway, sending him to the hospital with a compression fracture of his first lumbar vertebra. He will be sidelined for six weeks and miss at least five races. Mark Martin will be his replacement in the No. 11 Toyota for next weekend’s race at Martinsville, Va. Brian Vickers will then take over for the remaining four races.
Unaware of the severity of Hamlin’s injury, Logano sounded tone deaf when asked about the incident, saying Hamlin had simply got what was coming to him after he had wrecked Logano in the previous week’s race at Bristol, Tenn.
“He probably shouldn’t have done what he did last week, so that’s what he gets,’’ Logano said.
Later, when those remarks were juxtaposed with images of Hamlin being gingerly placed on a stretcher and loaded into the back of an ambulance, Logano backtracked, indicating it was never his intention to hurt anyone, least of all Hamlin.
“I just thought we were racing hard, you know?’’ Logano told USA Today. “It happens. You don’t ever want anyone to get hurt; you don’t want anything to happen, especially to Denny. We were racing really hard there at the end of the race.
“I wish there was a SAFER barrier down there, and I wish I knew [about Hamlin’s injury] before I made any comments on TV also.’’
Logano tried to reach out to Hamlin via Twitter Thursday, when he posted: “Wish @dennyhamlin a speedy recovery. Hope he gets back to the track soon. And thanks to all of my fans for their support. #meansalot.”
Logano’s olive branch offering did little to quell the seething Hamlin, and it seems it might also take more than a tweet or a text message to smooth things over with Tony Stewart, whom Logano blocked and shoved down to the apron near Turn 1 to protect his line on the race’s final restart at Fontana.
“Just racing hard, trying to win the race,’’ Logano said. “I wanted to block that because I knew if he put me three-wide, that would be the end of my race and I wouldn’t win. I was smart enough to realize that. I understand that [Stewart] is frustrated and he’s angry and I’ll talk to him about that. I had to do what I had to do.’’
As far was Stewart was concerned, talk was cheap. And he demonstrated he was going to have none of it from Logano when Stewart stomped over to Logano’s pit area after the race and took a swing at him.
“He’s going to learn a lesson,’’ Stewart said of Logano. “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.’’
Then, Stewart issued a warning to Logano.
“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 out everybody else, and then he does that the next week. Sends Denny to the hospital and screws 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.’’
Beginning to thaw
Things are beginning to take shape at New England Dragway in Epping, N.H., where the strip will host an inaugural NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event June 20-23.
Joe Lombardo, New England Dragway’s general manager, said this week that the brutal winter weather did wreak some havoc in the track’s attempts to get its $2 million pit paving project underway.
“The ground was so frozen and so wet and, of course, we had a lot of snow on the ground,’’ Lombardo said. “But a lot of that is gone now and we’ll begin work on the detention ponds to handle the water flow and then, if everything goes according to plan, we should have pavement down by the end of April.’’
Lombardo indicated the track was able to get other projects completed to meet NHRA specifications in advance of its inaugural national event. He also said New England Dragway planned to install temporary seating to double its grandstand capacity from 7,500 to 15,000.
“We had to get all new barriers on the track and we got that completed about the middle of January,’’ Lombardo said. “Throughout the course of last year we got a lot of other things done. We installed the rest of our lights, we moved our scoreboard frames back, and we started working on the catch area and need to get that finished up, but nothing that’s really major [is left to complete] except for the paving project.’’
Hinchcliffe hits mark
James Hinchcliffe captured the first IndyCar victory of his career in the series season opener last weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla., where the Andretti Autosport driver was joined on the podium by teammate Marco Andretti, who finished third, and runner-up Helio Castroneves. Hinchcliffe took the lead from Castroneves on a late restart when the Penske Racing driver went wide going into the first corner. “Last year we qualified fourth, finished fourth,’’ Hinchcliffe said. “Qualified fourth again and I thought that was kind of our cursed number there for a bit and then the big thing that people were saying early on in the season is ‘What is it going to take to win?’ And the big thing was minimizing mistakes.’’ . . . A.J. Allmendinger, who was forced out of his NASCAR ride at Penske Racing last summer when he tested positive for a banned substance, conducted a rookie oval orientation at Texas Motor Speedway in preparation for his run at the Indianapolis 500. “Just like any test in an IndyCar right now for me, it’s about getting comfortable,’’ said Allmendinger, who will make his IZOD IndyCar Series debut next weekend in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. “It all feels like I’m a fish out of water, trying to figure out how to get around. People assume back when I raced Champ Cars I did a lot of ovals, but I really only did Milwaukee, so this is brand new for me.’’Material from personal interviews, various sanctioning bodies, race tracks, teams, and manufacturers was used in the preparation of this report. Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.