BILL DWYRE

NASCAR road rage at 170 mph: The daredevil made them do it

Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin's last-lap crash, continuing their feud from last week, overshadows Kyle Busch's victory at Fontana. It's business as usual for NASCAR.

Somewhere in the galaxy, maybe Mars, there might be a crazier sport than NASCAR. These guys don't race cars, they play Russian roulette with lives. Each other's.

There is courage, and then there are NASCAR drivers. They must do their training by wrestling crocodiles or sticking hands into the mouths of great whites. For kicks, they sneak up on rattlesnakes in high grass.

Calling this a sport of daredevils is selling it short. Testosterone-fueled psychos comes closer, which will be taken in the garages as a compliment, except for Danica Patrick's.

The Auto Club 400 was run Sunday at the big two-mile track in Fontana. Kyle Busch seemed to have the best car most of the day, and so it was nice he won.

He obviously was excited about his victory, but worried that others had not focused properly on it, because he said afterward, "I did win the race today, you know. That might be a story, but I'm sure it's not."

More on that later, as we wade through the debris.

They raced for 200 laps on a 14-degree banked track in need of pothole repair on the backstretch. Sometimes, they ran as fast as 200 mph. The average final speed was a paltry, Little-Old-Lady-From-Pasadena 135.351 mph. But that factored in all the caution flags brought about by crashes, engines exploding, and fenders falling off cars and slashing tires of cars trailing those with falling fenders.

Lest we be misunderstood, this was a clean race. Positives abounded. Nobody in a crowd estimated at more than 80,000 — you have to estimate because NASCAR doesn't say — was sprayed with engine parts. Only one driver was airlifted to a hospital.

More on that later, as we wade through the debris.

For nearly three hours, they droned in a circle. Then, on the last lap, and with the knowledgeable fans on their feet in anticipation, a spring-training game turned into the ninth inning of a tied World Series Game 7. Except, these guys were playing with sports equipment considerably more lethal than bats and balls.

The leaders, Car No. 22 driven by Joey Logano and Car No. 11 driven by Denny Hamlin, streaked out of the final turn for the finish line. They were side-by-side, kind of like you drive to the grocery store on a busy street. Except they were probably going 170 mph.

There was more going on here than just two guys trying to win, and the fans knew it. Last week, at Bristol, Tenn., Hamlin had bumped Logano and forced him to spin. After the race, Logano confronted Hamlin while Hamlin sat in his car. Words were exchanged and nasty sentiments continued all week.

Most pro athletes tend to sugarcoat comments to the press. NASCAR drivers sugarcoat nothing. If you are a sportswriter, you pray for this.

Hamlin qualified on the pole at Fontana; Logano was sixth. From the start, they were two magnets. It was in-your-face, side-by-side intimidation at 170 mph.

Everybody saw it coming on the last lap, especially Busch, the lost-in-the-shuffle champion, who zipped around the feuding pair to victory just as Logano squeezed to the right on Hamlin. That sent both cars spinning and crashing and eventually sent Hamlin to a hospital, via helicopter.

Serious stuff. Scary stuff. Also, business as usual in NASCAR.

There was aftermath. Always is. Tony Stewart, a veteran whose temper can run as hot as his engine, had been blocked on the last restart by Logano. Possibly further enraged by seeing Hamlin crash, Stewart marched to Logano's car and unleashed a roundhouse right that was blocked by a crew member. His later words connected flush to the jaw.

"He's a rich kid who never had to work a day in his life," Stewart said of Logano. "He's a tough guy on pit row when he's got one of his crew guys there. He threw a water bottle at me, like a girl."

Logano said, "I was just racing for the lead at the end of the race. I was just trying to accomplish winning the race."

Asked if he would talk to Stewart about this, Logano, 22, said he would. Asked if he would accept a conversation with Logano, Stewart, 41, said he wouldn't.

NASCAR races next on April 7, in Martinsville, Va., where Hamlin is a four-time winner. They may need to call in the National Guard.

Finally, we realize, as we finish wading through the debris, that this sport needs a more accurate label.

Road rage for pay.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

CHICAGO

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