Right up until the final turn of the 400-mile race, victory in the Auto Club 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California had seemed to be down to a straight shootout between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.
But anyone with any knowledge of NASCAR current events knew that this was unlikely to go smoothly: Hamlin and Logano have been in an escalating spiral of hostility since the beginning of the season, when Hamlin took exception to what he saw as Logano blocking him at Daytona. After sniping at each other on Twitter, it had culminated last week with Hamlin wrecking Logano, and Logano yelling at Hamlin in pit road saying that he was "coming for" Hamlin.
So that last run to the flag between Hamlin and Logano was never going to be all that simple after all: and when Logano sent Hamlin into the inside retaining wall in a huge wince-inducing crash it seemed only to be expected. Kyle Busch passed them both and claimed the win at the flag.
"He probably shouldn't have done what he did last week, so that's what he gets," said Logano after the wreck. "I guess we're even now. He'll think twice before he does something next time."
However Logano - who was Hamlin's team mate at Joe Gibbs Racing until the end of 2012, when he switched to Penske Racing - insisted that the wreck had not been intentional. "It was just racing for the lead," he said.
"I was trying to get to the bottom, I overdrove the bottom and slid up," he elaborated. "“I wanted to win that race. I feel like I had the car to win the race," he said, adding: "Denny Hamlin was not going to win that race."
Logano was speaking before he knew that Hamlin had apparently collapsed after extracting himself from his wrecked car, which had impacted the inside wall with such force that it was lifted clear off the ground. It happened at a part of the track not covered by a SAFER barrier for impact reduction.
Hamlin was subsequently put on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance to be taken to the in-field care centre, from where the decision was taken to air-lift him to a local hospital for further treatment. NASCAR officials were quick to state that the decision to use a helicopter did not indicate any severity to Hamlin's condition, merely that local traffic around the speedway following the end of the race meant that the roads were gridlocked.
Hamlin's crew chief Darian Grubb went with the driver to the hospital and kept the team and family informed. Hamlin's long-time parter Jordan Fish subsequently tweeted, "Thank [you] everyone for your messages concerning Denny. Darian is keeping us posted. He's alert [and] awake, main concern is his back."
A statement from JGR confirmed that Hamlin had been complaining of lower back pain and would be hospitalised overnight for observation. The team added that no further updates were expected to be issued overnight.
In the circumstances there was no comment from Hamlin's camp or JGR about the last-corner accident with Logano. Hamlin had sought to cool down the feud with his former team mate on Friday for bumping Logano into a spin last week at Bristol, which had taken the situation to a whole new level.
"I felt bad, and really if you could watch my in-car camera, you could see how frustrated I was to see he had damage to his car," Hamlin had told reporters. "I banged the steering wheel because I was, 'Man, I didn't mean to do that.'
"I wish the cameras would see what happened before the contact you saw on TV," he had continued. "That frustrates me the most. I'm not trying to bully Joey around because of performance.
"At the end of the race I shouldn't have degraded him as a driver," Hamlin added, calling his outburst "the big mistake" that he most regretted in the circumstances "It's not my job to say who's good or bad in our sport. That part probably should have been left out."
Hamlin might not think that's his job, but three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart does often feel that it falls to him to school the younger drivers in NASCAR etiquette when they're getting out of line, and on Sunday after the race he had his sights set on none other than Joey Logano.
The angry clash in pit road wasn't over the Hamlin incident, but about a restart 11 laps from the end in which Stewart had felt Logano deliberately blocked him. Insults, shoves and punches where thrown in the confrontation that ensued, although none of the latter reportedly connected.
“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,” said Stewart after the altercation, adding that if he hadn't hit the rev limiter on his car then Logano "wouldn't have made it through turn 1 to begin with" at the time.
“I'm tired of these guys doing that stuff, especially out of a kid that has been griping about everybody else and then he does that the next week," Stewart added. "It's time he learns a lesson."
Stewart continued, "He's run his mouth long enough. He sat there and done this double standard and he's nothing but a little rich kid that has never had to work in his life," adding: "He's going to learn what us working guys who had to work our way up how it works."
Logano said that he'd had to slow down in order not to jump then-leader Kyle Busch at line before the restart, but didn't deny that he'd taken the opportunity to block Stewart.
"I had to throw the block there,” admitted Logano. “That was a race for the lead. I felt if the #14 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.
Stewart dismissed that explanation and said that Logano had spun his tyres pure and simple, and had blocked to make up for his own mistake. "For a guy that's been complaining about how everybody else is driving here and for him to do that, it's a double standard," Stewart blasted. "He makes the choice. He makes the decision to run us down there, and when you run a driver down there, you take responsibility for what happens after that.”
Logano said that he still had no idea why Stewart was so worked up even after watching the incident back on the TV monitors. "I watched the replay. I can understand being a little irritated but in my eyes, that's racing. In his eyes, it isn't," he said. "I'm going to have to talk to him about that. We've always got along really well. I'm going to see if we can work this one out."
The signs weren't promising, because Stewart remained apoplectic.
“He's sent Denny to the hospital and screwed our day up,” said Stewart. 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. He wants to talk about it? We'll talk about it.
"After he threw the water bottle at me like a little girl, we'll go at it now, he raged. "I'm not going to listen. I don't care what he has to say. It's just words right now. Actions speak louder than words."
Ironically in all of this it's Stewart who most likely faces a NASCAR sanction when the race is reviewed by the officials. NASCAR takes a hands-off, "Boys have at|" policy for anything happening on the race track like the two incidents Logano was involved in with Hamlin and Stewart during the race; but they tae a very dim view of anyone misbehaving on pit road, and it was Stewart who initiated that aspect of the confrontation - although Logano himself had been quick to say that none of the punches Stewart aimed at him connected.
“If NASCAR wants to let the guys have at it, it shouldn't be any different than hockey," said Stewart about the prospect of being penalised. "Let us have it and when one guy goes to the ground, it's over."Full Auto Club 400 race results
.Post-race Q&A with winner Kyle Busch