For a while, it looked like a 13th different Sprint Cup driver would lock in a Chase berth with a victory tonight at Bristol Motor Speedway.
But instead, Joey Logano entered the 3-Win Club in the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
Logano took the lead with 45 laps to go and saw off a last-lap challenge from Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski to win the Irwin Tools Night Race – becoming the fifth different driver to win three races this year (Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr.).
Following a restart with 63 laps left, Logano quickly moved into the Top 5 and then dispatched Carl Edwards for second place before setting his sights on the winless Matt Kenseth.
After an extended period of working the inside line, Logano finally made it stick with 45 to go when he slid up in front of Kenseth to claim the lead.
But Logano still had to out-hustle former Cup champion Keselowski, who went in deep on the inside of Logano in Turns 3 and 4 on the last lap.
It was an admirable last-ditch effort, but Logano held firm and motored by on the high line to take his first career win at NASCAR’s most infamous half mile.
“I wasn’t sure when I woke up this morning if we had a winning car or not,” Logano said to ESPN in Victory Lane. “[Crew chief] Tod Gordon is a good salesman – he pretty much sold me into thinking I had a winning car and made some small adjustments with it all night, and we got our third win of the year.
“…This is like one of the three biggest races of the year – the Bristol night race. And to have this in the record books with your name on it, it’s just really, really cool.”
For Logano, the win seemed to come down to knowing when and when not to use patience. Off of the restart with 63 to go, Logano rocketed from the sixth position to second in the span of just a few laps.
But when he finally got near Kenseth, he didn’t push the issue immediately, instead waiting for a perfect opportunity to strike.
“On the restart when we were sixth, I said ‘I’ve got to capitalize right now,'” said Logano. “So I went as hard as I could, raced the 20 [Kenseth] really hard…I was trying to keep up with him for a while. The 20 was really fast.”
After Logano finally assumed the lead, it appeared the race was pretty much done. But with just a few laps left, he sensed something amiss with his No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford.
“I don’t know if it was brakes or a hub failing in the rear, but it started vibrating really bad, getting really loose,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Ugh, hold on, a couple more laps, couple more laps!’
“Of course, there’s always added drama at the end that you don’t want…I was just able to make it there at the end.”
As for Kenseth, he eventually settled for third position ahead of fourth-place Jimmie Johnson and fifth-place Kurt Busch.
However, Kenseth continued to solidify his hold on a Chase Grid position, extending his cushion over 17th place to a sizable 83 points.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Bristol spring race winner Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, and Greg Biffle rounded out the Top 10.
McMurray, who pretty much needs a win to make the post-season, led a race-high 148 laps. But after pitting for four fresh tires under a caution with less than 70 laps to go, he took the restart in fifth and couldn’t recover the lost track position.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES AT BRISTOL – Irwin Tools Night Race
1. 22-Joey Logano, led 76 laps
2. 2-Brad Keselowski, led 46 laps
3. 20-Matt Kenseth, led 62 laps
4. 48-Jimmie Johnson
5. 41-Kurt Busch
6. 17-Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
7. 99-Carl Edwards
8. 1-Jamie McMurray, led 148 laps
9. 27-Paul Menard
10. 16-Greg Biffle
11. 4-Kevin Harvick, led 75 laps
12. 42-Kyle Larson
13. 31-Ryan Newman
14. 47-AJ Allmendinger
ONE LAP DOWN
15. 14-Jeff Burton
16. 24-Jeff Gordon, led 17 laps
TWO LAPS DOWN
17. 15-Clint Bowyer
18. 95-Michael McDowell
THREE LAPS DOWN
19. 51-Justin Allgaier
20. 78-Martin Truex Jr.
21. 55-Brian Vickers
22. 40-Landon Cassill
FOUR LAPS DOWN
23. 34-David Ragan
24. 36-Reed Sorenson
FIVE LAPS DOWN
25. 38-David Gilliland
26. 13-Casey Mears
SEVEN LAPS DOWN
27. 10-Danica Patrick
28. 3-Austin Dillon
EIGHT LAPS DOWN
29. 98-Josh Wise
30. 26-Cole Whitt
NINE LAPS DOWN
31. 33-David Stremme
32. 23-Alex Bowman, Lap 489
33. 32-JJ Yeley, Lap 489
34. 9-Marcos Ambrose, Lap 480
35. 5-Kasey Kahne, Lap 477, led 40 laps
36. 18-Kyle Busch, Lap 442, Accident, led 8 laps
37. 83-Ryan Truex, Lap 338, Engine
38. 7-Michael Annett, Lap 243, Accident
39. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr., Lap 176, Accident
40. 11-Denny Hamlin, led 28 laps, Lap 160 Accident
41. 43-Aric Almirola, Lap 123, Accident
42. 66-Brett Moffitt, Lap 78, Engine
43. 37-Dave Blaney, Lap 37, Overheating