Motivation high for Denny Hamlin in return to Auto Club Speedway

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Last year, it was a race he couldn’t wait for and then he didn’t get to drive. This year, the hunger remains.

Two years after Denny Hamlin was injured in a last-lap crash racing for the lead, he returns to Auto Club Speedway this weekend in search of a better ending.

“My motivation is to go there and perform at a really high level,’’ Hamlin said. “It’s been circled for like a year or two now to run well there. I just didn’t get a chance last year and, hopefully, I will this year.”

Hamlin battled Joey Logano for the lead on the final lap when they made contact. Hamlin’s car shot down the track and slammed into a concrete wall inside Turn 4. He finished 25th and suffered an L1 compression fracture, which forced him to miss four races.

Hamlin returned to Auto Club Speedway last year eager to make amends for the win that got away, saying that the California track was “one of my top-three tracks I’d like to win at.’’

He never got the chance. While his car sat 13th on the starting grid, Hamlin was at a local hospital for a metal sliver in his eye that caused vision problems the morning of the race. Sam Hornish Jr. drove Hamlin’s car for Joe Gibbs Racing, finishing 17th.

Hamlin enters this weekend after a 23rd-place finish at Phoenix International Raceway that dropped him to 13th in the points standing. His last top-10 finish at Auto Club Speedway came in Oct. 2010 when he placed eighth. He has three poles at the track.