Joey Logano emerged from his No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford Fusion wiping the sweat off his face last Sunday afternoon, glancing at the scene in pit road at Michigan International Speedway and pondered about a bid for a third win prior to the start of the Chase. Finishing third and looking like a man that tried to hide his disappointment from capitalizing on a critical victory, he came into Saturday's Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway with determination, guts, and desire.
The end result: sweat, fatigue, but nearly three hours of hard racing that resulted in win number three of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
In the midst of a career season in the most elite form of stock car racing, the 24-year-old Middletown, CT native delivered with a message for the rest of his competition, with a little reference to Carl Carlton.
''That we can win the thing,'' Logano said. ''I feel like the Bristol night race is maybe the third or fourth biggest race of the year. Just the atmosphere before the race, if it doesn't pump you up, nothing does. It's just the baddest mama jama race track ever built.''
Leading on four different occasions for a total of 76 laps, Logano kept his No. 22 Ford in the front of the field, lurking behind Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, and Brad Keselowski and putting the spurs to his car when it really counted.
Driving a smart race complimented by brilliant calls by crew chief Todd Gordon, this Team Penske combination was not going to be denied a share of the Chase Grid points lead heading into Race 25 at Atlanta (Next Sunday at 7:30 PM ET on ESPN).
The turning point for Logano came with 67 laps left in the race, when a few racers opted to stay out for track position over fresh tires for the final green flag run. Matt Kenseth, the highest Chase Grid racer without a win, elected for the number one spot and tried his hardest to keep his No. 20 Dollar General Toyota Camry in the front before Team Penske's Logano and Keselowski had different ideas and settling the win for their team.
Ultimately, Logano crossed the stripe first with Keselowski and Kenseth rounding out the podium finishers. This weekend was a relatively kind one for Penske affiliated teams, as Keselowski took the checkers in the rain-delayed Camping World Truck race on Thursday while Ryan Blaney captured the checkers on Friday night's Nationwide spectacular.
To say the least, it was a weekend that wound up well for Penske, even if Keselowski wound up one position short of glory.
''When I'd get right behind Logano, I'd get in the dirty air and it just pushed too much be able to do anything,'' Keselowski said. ''The last lap, I just dive-bombed it in there on a prayer and kind of hoping it would stick or he would slip of something would happen for me, and made it look cool. But it really wasn't that close.''
As for Kenseth, he knew that his precious lead spot in the late stages of the race was on a luxury of time.
''I just knew that clean air was going to be worth more than new tires,'' Kenseth said of his decision after finishing third. ''They cleared everybody way too fast."
Saturday night's race saw some heavy crashes that involved Chase racers Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on lap 161. Hamlin was leading the race with a hard charging Kevin Harvick looking to gain the top spot before contact coming off turn 4 resulted in both drivers tangling in the frontstretch.
Spinning right into the inside retaining pit wall, Hamlin's front clip impacted the barrier before bounching right into the path of Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevy, resulting in two totaled cars. Earnhardt and Hamlin wound up 39th and 40th when all was said and done.
Rounding out the top-10 finishers were Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Carl Edwads, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, and Greg Biffle. Notable finishers included Kyle Larson (12th), AJ Allmendinger (14th), Jeff Gordon (16th), Clint Bowyer (17th), Michael McDowell (18th), and Justin Allgaier (19th),
Race winner Logano scored his third win of 2014 by a margin of 0.39 seconds over Keselowski, churning up an average speed of 92.965 mph. There were 16 lead changes among nine drivers, with nine cautions periods slowing the race pace for a total of 64 laps.
Here's a look at the Chase Grid after Race 24 of 36:
- Jeff Gordon (Hendrick/Chevy/3 wins)
- Dale Earnhardt Jr (Hendrick/Chevy/3 wins)
- Brad Keselowski (Penske/Ford/3 wins)
- Joey Logano (Penske/Ford/3 wins)
- Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick/Chevy/3 wins)
- Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas/Chevy/2 wins)
- Carl Edwards (Roush-Fenway/Ford/2 wins)
- Kyle Busch (Gibbs/Toyota/1 win)
- Denny Hamlin (Gibbs/Toyota/1 win)
- AJ Allmendinger (JTG Daugherty/Chevy/1 win)
- Kurt Busch (Stewart-Haas/Chevy/1 win)
- Aric Almirola (Petty/Ford/1 win)
- Matt Kenseth (Gibbs/Toyota)
- Ryan Newman (Childress/Chevy)
- Clint Bowyer (Waltrip/Toyota)
- Greg Biffle (Roush-Fenway/Ford)