When Denny Hamlin returns to Auto Club Speedway this week, he'll find more of the SAFER barrier in the area where he crashed last year.
The Southern California facility has added an additional 1000 feet of the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction barrier inside Turn 4, according to a track spokesman. The change was made in September, six months after Hamlin sustained a broken back vertebra after crashing into an unprotected area of the wall in the track's Sprint Cup Series event last March.
Hamlin missed four full races and most of a fifth after the crash, which occurred as he was racing Joey Logano for the victory on the final lap. The two drivers—who had feuded the week before at Bristol—made contact off the final corner, and Hamin's car slid down the track and impacted an inside wall. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was strapped to a backboard and airlifted to an area hospital, where he was diagnosed with a compression fracture of a lumbar vertebra.
In the wake of the accident, NASCAR officials said experts would reevaluate that section of the wall and recommend changes if necessary. SAFER barriers are typically first installed along the parts of track walls where impacts are most likely to occur, but it's not uncommon for the barriers to be added or altered in reaction to accidents. A Jeff Gordon hit at Las Vegas, an Elliott Sadler incident at Pocono and a Jeff Fuller accident at Kentucky each resulted in changes being made to walls or barriers at those facilities.
Hamlin's crash and subsequent layoff last season was a major factor in him missing the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time in his career as a driver at the sport's highest level. He said last week that because of that incident, the two-mile facility in Fontana now moves to the top of the list of tracks where he wants to win most.
"California is No. 1 simply because we never made it to the finish last year," he said at Bristol, where he finished sixth. "While we had a great shot to win it, we never made it. It would feel like you do have some redemption, and it would make a great story."