Today’s Challenger Round race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup was essentially two races in one.
In the first 170 laps of the Sylvania 300, there were only two cautions. In the final 130 laps, there were 13 of them.
But somebody had to survive the second-half chaos, and that somebody was Joey Logano. The Connecticut native nailed two late restarts, including one in green-white-checkered, to win today at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and join Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski in the Contender Round.
Logano pitted with 54 laps to go in regulation and took four tires, knocking him out of the Top 10. But that call proved to be the right one.
After returning to the Top 10, he jumped from sixth to third on a restart with 40 to go. He then passed Kevin Harvick for second position and later took the lead off another restart with 28 laps to go.
But it was far from over. With nine laps left, Jeff Gordon cut a right-front tire and slammed into the wall to bunch up the field again. Then on the ensuing restart with four to go, Tony Stewart spun out to force the race into G-W-C.
In the first attempt, Kyle Larson was able to get past Harvick for second. But by the time that the talented rookie had moved to P2, Logano had pulled away to an insurmountable lead.
“I thought we gave it away at that point, but the four tires were good,” Logano told ESPN about the critical pit stop with 54 to go. “We got good restarts and we were able to get ourselves back up there.”
The win is also doubly special for Logano since it came at what he considers his home track. He won his first Cup race at NHMS in 2009, but that was a rain-shortened affair.
Today, it was clear that Logano considers today’s triumph at Loudon more satisfying.
“…This is the coolest place to win for me,” he said. “I can never pick a better race track to win on. I watched my first Cup race here when I was five, and while I won that other Cup race here, I just felt like I had to win one the right way. This means so much.”
Larson held on for runner-up honors ahead of Harvick, Jamie McMurray in fourth, and Jimmie Johnson in fifth. Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Brian Vickers rounded out the Top 10.
Meanwhile, the Chase took a dramatic turn as one championship contender after another fell victim to problems this afternoon. Some like Keselowski and Kyle Busch recovered from their issues; Keselowski, a spin on Lap 194, Busch, a chain-reaction incident on a restart on Lap 188.
Many others, however, did not.
Gordon’s crash relegated him to 26th at the checkered flag, while Busch and Denny Hamlin’s own crashes (Hamlin having his following an earlier fuel probe issue) forced them to swallow 36th and 37th-place finishes. A few managed to soldier on, though, particularly Matt Kenseth in 21st (crash, 31 laps to go) and Kasey Kahne in 23rd (he was in the Kyle Busch incident).
Today’s proceedings definitely ramped up the pressure for those trying to advance as the Challenger Round finale comes next weekend at Dover International Speedway. Here’s how the Chase Grid looks as of now:
1. Brad Keselowski – Advanced
2. Joey Logano – Advanced
3. Kevin Harvick, +41 points over 13th
4. Jimmie Johnson, +31 points
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr., +28 points
6. Kyle Busch, +28 points
7. Jeff Gordon, +21 points
8. Carl Edwards, +8 points
9. Matt Kenseth, +8 points
10. A.J. Allmendinger, +7 points
11. Kasey Kahne, +6 points
12. Ryan Newman, +6 points
13. Denny Hamlin, -6 points behind 12th
14. Greg Biffle, -6 points
15. Kurt Busch, -8 points
16. Aric Almirola -10 points
And here’s a run-down of how all 16 Chasers fared in today’s race:
1. Joey Logano
3. Kevin Harvick
5. Jimmie Johnson
6. Aric Almirola
7. Brad Keselowski
8. Kyle Busch
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
13. A.J. Allmendinger
16. Greg Biffle
17. Carl Edwards
18. Ryan Newman
21. Matt Kenseth
23. Kasey Kahne
26. Jeff Gordon
36. Kurt Busch
37. Denny Hamlin