Back when Joey Logano (L) and Denny Hamlin were good buds (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Thinking Brad Keselowski's feistiness is rubbing off on new teammate Joey Logano….
And, oh, what a melodrama this all is.
It is ironic that the best California 400 ever was marred by the injury that has now sidelined championship contender Denny Hamlin, and probably knocked him out of title contention this season, even though the year is only five races old.
The trivia question:
What do Brian Vickers, Mark Martin, Logano, Hamlin and Tony Stewart all have in common at the moment?
All are suddenly embroiled in this same big ol' controversy…which seems centered around Logano.
And this, remember, is legendary Martinsville, where temper-tantrums can get out of hand in a hurry.
Drivers here generally seem to expect someone to knock Logano into the wall in Sunday's Martinsville 500.
Denny is mad at Joey….because Joey was mad at Denny…because Denny was mad at Joey.
And Tony is mad at Joey, mad enough to throw fists the last time out, 12 days ago, out in California.
Mark and Brian are now involved because they're the two substitute drivers Joe Gibbs has had to line up while Denny's back mends.
Hamlin will likely be sidelined at least until Darlington's 500 Mother's Day weekend. He'd like to return to NASCAR action at Richmond, his home track, a week earlier, but he concedes that's not likely.
Logano, who was criticized during his time with Gibbs for not being aggressive enough in some situations, is with a new team this season, Roger Penske's. And, more importantly here, perhaps, Logano now has a new teammate – Brad Keselowski.
And Keselowski's well-known feisty approach to racing – cue all those Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson videos here please – may be rubbing off on his new teammate.
Certainly Logano is driving with more confidence this spring, and more assertively. He's had several shots to win: at Bristol he was battling Hamlin for the win, when they crashed, and at California he was battling Hamlin for the win, when they again crashed.
The two also had a few words after the Daytona 500 race.
Hamlin at Bristol says he was trying to rattle Logano's cage, with a bump which he says was a little too hard.
Logano angrily confronted Hamlin after that race. Here's the Bristol video
The following weekend at California's Auto Club Speedway they were side-by-side the last lap battling for the win, Logano on the inside sliding up into Hamlin. Both crashed, Hamlin by far getting the worst of it, head-on into a section of the infield wall that was not protected by the soft-wall Safer barrier.
Hamlin, who already had back issues, wound up with an L1 fracture in his back. Denny and Joey at California
This probably isn't going to end well: Joey Logano is on the inside, and Denny Hamlin is on the outside....for the moment (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"You don't appreciate the Safer barriers as much until you don't hit one," Hamlin says.
"It's definitely a must at every race track; I think NASCAR has the data to know how much it softens a particular blow.
"It would have probably changed my outcome had it been a Safer barrier there."
California track officials say it's up to NASCAR officials to tell them where to install the soft-walls. NASCAR says its safety engineers are studying the situation. That track will not host another Sprint Cup race till next season.
The soft-walls are one of the most important safety innovations NASCAR has added in the years since Dale Earnhardt's death. However the Styrofoam barriers are not installed everywhere. And Hamlin is not the first driver to find such a chink in the armor.
Darrell Waltrip isn't alone in insisting NASCAR should order soft-walls everywhere. Of course drivers themselves have a responsibility for checking out race tracks and making safety suggestions.
Hamlin hit the infield wall at California in much the same way that Jimmie Johnson hit the infield wall at Daytona a year ago. However, the Daytona wall where Johnson hit was safety-padded, and he was back racing the next weekend. This is the video.
This is really going to hurt...for quite a while (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
What's really going on with this Hamlin-Logano thing isn't clear.
What does appear clear is that Hamlin and Logano have both been driving boldly.
After Bristol, Hamlin, who has 22 tour wins since his first start in 2005, made a slightly derogatory remark about Logano, who has only two tour wins since his first start in late 2008. During Logano's five years as Hamlin's teammate, he was clearly number three on the totem pole behind Hamlin. Now though, Logano is teammate with the sport's defending champion, and a man whose frequent run-ins during his early years on the tour were, well, sometimes spectacular….and pointed.
Denny Hamlin (L) with this week's sub Mark Martin (C) and next week's sub Brian Vickers (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Logano, remember, was first 'discovered' by Martin nearly 10 years ago how, back when Logano was just an unknown teenager running short-tracks.
Martin, ironically, is now filling in here for Hamlin (just a one-race deal, with Vickers taking over next week at Texas).
"Joey came into the series with a lot of pressure, and a lot of expectations," Martin says. "As a young driver he had been very, very successful.
"I don't think he's been out there looking for trouble at all. He doesn't appear that kind of guy.
"But he's racing hard. And he finds himself in a position where the spotlight seems to be shining on him.
"Ask Darrell Waltrip: I'm not sure that's a bad thing.
"Over a period of time you earn the respect, and you earn the reputation that you have.
" Short term, sometimes that can get a little off; but over the long haul, that will find its water level.
"Right now, it's hard to say. I'm not the judge of it."
So, any advice for Logano?
"Joey hasn't asked me…and I don't seek him out like I did when he was a kid," Martin says. "So I don't have any advice for him.
"If he asks me, I will have.
"Things happen. And I've got my own deals to deal with. What he's going through is not at the top of my priority list to be worried about, to be honest with you."
And at the center of the hurricane, Joey Logano (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Vickers could be the big winner in all this, because he's part-time and looking for a full-time ride, which means these upcoming weeks in Hamlin's car could be tryouts for a potential fourth Joe Gibbs team.
"It's a huge opportunity for me," Vickers, 29, says. "I welcome the opportunity and the challenge."
Vickers' only tour win came in the summer of 2009 at Michigan. Now he will be driving for a team that won five times last season, with 2011 championship crew chief Darian Grubb in charge.
Vickers is a hard driver too – ask Stewart. Those two had a celebrated battle at Sonoma last summer, with Vickers getting the best of it, and Stewart crashing out.
And Vickers' hot performance here a year ago was, well, one for the books.
What Vickers and Martin may have to do is pump the team back up. Hamlin's title hopes may well be history, barring some amazing comeback. What that may mean for Grubb and the team is not clear.
Grubb: "The goal is to move the car up in the owner's standings in the next few races, and when Denny returns, do everything in our power to get both him and our team in the chase."
"It's very sad how it happened, because I've been on the receiving end of this too," Vickers said, with a nod toward his own medical sidelining a few years back.
Logano's feistiness this season didn't get kudos from Stewart at the end of the California race. On the final restart Logano blocked Stewart low, in a typical move, certainly not out of the ordinary. But Stewart exploded afterwards, charging over to Logano and throwing fists….and perhaps not recalling too clearly his own block at Talladega last fall, that triggered a huge crash and took Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of championship contention.
Logano still seems surprised at Stewart's angry reaction. The two apparently still haven't talked. And NASCAR officials have not brought the two together for a sit-down.
Will Stewart crash Logano here?
That seems to be what many are expecting.
Vickers' take? "Tony is a very passionate racer and can have a temper at times," Vickers says dryly. "Truth is we all can. Tony is typically more
"We've had our moments on and off the track, but we've always worked through them, and I have a lot of respect for him.
"I wish Joey the best of luck in the world."
Cue the laughter.
Logano himself, getting strong support from Penske through these various encounters, says simply "You have to stand up for yourself.
"You have to put your foot down and show them you're out here to win a race, you're out here to stand strong… and you're doing that for your whole team."
Sounds like the Brad Keselowski credo.
Logano was not happy with Hamlin for the Bristol crash, which probably cost Logano the win.
"You feel you got done wrong," Logano says. "You got spun out.
"It doesn't help that relationship, obviously."
The final miles at California, Hamlin versus Logano, were brilliant dueling. At the fateful moment, Logano either slipped up into Hamlin's door, or tried to squeeze him higher.
"My number one goal is to win a race," Logano says. "So did I intentionally wreck him? No, I did not intentionally do that. If I were going to do that, I would have hit him in the left-rear tire. I hit him in the door.
"It's hard racing at that point."
When TV got to Logano moments later, no one knew the extent of Hamlin's injuries. Hamlin had gotten out of the car on his own, before collapsing on the ground.
"I hate he got hurt," Logano says. "I didn't know Denny was hurt."
Logano's takeaway on everything, all in all: "I'm the same Joey Logano I've always been -- happy-go-lucky…and very competitive.
"But I don't get walked on."
Hamlin, who has had so many MRIs and X-rays that his doctors are laying off that for a few weeks, is still clearly ailing. He has to wear a back brace, and at times his breathing appears troubled.
"I feel not completely back to normal, but I can walk around, and be a little more mobile," Hamlin says.
"I'm past the physical hurdles; it's just now the mental of not being able to get in the car the next six weeks."
Making the playoffs?
The cut doesn't come until early September. But missing five races, as Hamlin will likely do, makes making the playoffs all but impossible.
And Hamlin is trying to come to terms with that harsh reality. After all, it's barely April, and it's tough to have to consider the rest of a season pretty much a throwaway.
What that may mean for his recovery, Hamlin says, is probably not going to be a real consideration: "I don't want the chance at a championship to decide when I get back in the car. I want to do it when it's most safe.
"I want to do it when everyone is comfortable with me getting back in the car…not just because 'If we don't get in this week, then our season is done.'
"I have to make sure I'm able to sustain another hit."
Hamlin says he believes Logano hit him on purpose at California: "How was it not intentional?
"I saw him getting closer, and I moved up the track. He was just going to keep going until he ran into us.
"I'm sure he didn't mean to wreck, or get me hurt. But he meant to run into us, there's no doubt.
"I'm upset that things just couldn't be let go -- We had a great opportunity at the end of that race to let bygones be bygones.
"I played out in my mind that if he wins this race, I was going to shake his hand right there on pit lane and tell him 'This is how we should be racing each other.'
"Unfortunately it didn't play out for either one of us. He just didn't let it go."
Hamlin's injuries, and the soft-wall situation at some high-speed tracks, may have changed some drivers' thinking….not necessarily here but probably at Texas and Kansas the next few weeks.
"We've been spoiled, in thinking we're 'bulletproof,'" Hamlin says. "I think that's why you see guys retaliating….because you haven't seen any repercussions.
"This is a prime example of why you can't 'take it to that next level,' especially on the fast tracks.
"I think about how close I was to actually having a major injury, I mean major, major…..
"It won't change the way I drive, but it will definitely change the way I think when it comes to battling someone at the end and putting someone in the wall.
"It's just not the right thing to do. Anything can happen, you just never know."
And parked next to each other this weekend....... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)