Starting Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 from the pole position, and with a full afternoon of complex strategy and racing incidents, it was Joey Logano crossing the finish line first, adding his name to the Chase conversation and declaring his intention to contend in the next three races and beyond.
Along with being his third career victory, Logano’s Michigan win represents a few firsts – his first of the season, first at Michigan and first for Penske Racing. It was a big win for Logano and a big weekend for Penske Racing as it was AJ Allmendinger taking the checkerd flag in Saturday’s Nationwide début race at Mid-Ohio.
Making a big move from 16th to 13th in the point standings, Logano is just 17 points out of tenth place. As the youngest winner in MIS history, he puts his name in the hat for a Wild Card, with two spots available for drivers in point positions 11-20 with the most victories.
“This is huge for our Chase hopes,” Logano said. “We needed this to have a shot at getting in the Chase. We’re close now, but we can’t make any mistakes. This sure does help a lot.”
Mark Martin had the advantage with the restart on lap 178, as Kurt Busch, Logano and Harvick battled for the second spot behind him. But Martin knew he was short on fuel, and Logano in second with Harvick in third, began closing their gap on the leader.
This was a battle of the veteran and his protege with Logano, 23, introduced as a 14-year-old with praise from the 54-year-old Martin. The protege couldn’t make the pass for the lead, even though Martin was trying mightily to save fuel.
“I noticed he was lifting early, because I was catching him on entry (into the corners),” Logano said. “He was able to pull me on exit. I wanted to get by him, because I knew the 29 (Harvick) was fast, too…”It is so cool to be here in Victory Lane. It’s crazy racing Mark Martin, my childhood hero. I was able to race against him in Pocono last year for the win. It is so cool racing against a guy like that.”
It was in turn three on lap 197 that Martin slowed – running out of fuel – forcing him to bring his car to pit road. Logano then shot to the lead with Harvick hotly pursuing the lead. But Logano held the top spot and increased his lead for the last four laps, taking the checkered flag by 1.018 seconds over the No. 29 car of Harvick.
On that restart. Harvick lined up inside Martin with Logano behind him, and according to Harvick it was this restart, making the difference between first and second place.
“Just mistimed that last restart there,” Harvick said. “I had a great run on the 55 (Martin). Was going to beat him to the line by too much. Wound up having to drag the brakes. From there, it was going to be sketchy if we were going to keep the 22 back there.”Went for it, backfired a little bit there as we got three-wide and lost some track position. I didn’t think we were going to be racing the 55 there for the win (because Martin was short on fuel). I thought if we could just get out of turn two in second we’d be in good shape. Got a little bit greedy and lost a couple spots there. That’s what ultimately cost us the win.”
To round out the top-five, Kurt Busch ran third, then Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer.
Contrary to his intentions coming into Michigan, series leader Jimmie Johnson couldn’t dismiss his Michigan jinx. After damaging his primary car in Saturday’s practice, Johnson started the race in a backup car from the rear of the field. Although he took the lead on lap 43 during a round of green-flag pit stops, a short time later Johnson headed to the garage, ending his day because of an engine failure.
“The engine broke there,” Johnson said after bringing the car to the garage. “I guess when we came in for a green flag pit stop, something started then and made it a few more laps and didn’t really notice anything off. “Then it finally dropped a cylinder or two down the backstretch. Definitely an unfortunate thing, but we had plenty of speed in the car and I think we were going to be a factor.”
Having locked his place in the Chase last week at Watkins Glen, Johnson can afford his Michigan misfortune. But unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr. His day went the wrong direction when he crashed into the turn two wall on lap 135 — after leading 20 laps earlier in the race. The damage to Earnhardt’s car forced him to take his No. 88 machine to the garage for repairs.
Earnhardt finished 36th and fell from sixth to seventh in the point standings, and now sits just 20 points ahead of 11th-place Kasey Kahne with only three races left before the Chase field is established at Richmond.
Stewart’s replacement was the victim of an early spin in turn four, but Austin Dillon raced hard from a lap down to finish a respectable 14th. The No. 14 of Stewart-Haas Racing is in a tight battle with Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 56 for a spot in the owners’ Chase.
Rumors are swirling about who will fill the seat of the No. 14 car next week at Bristol, with Mark Martins’ name in the mix. But Martin has a contract with Michael Waltrip Racing through the end of the year, so there’s conversation required for that scenario to play out by next week. Look for another announcement from SHR this week to name the driver replacing Stewart at Bristol and perhaps beyond.
After Sunday’s race, there are two cars tied for the last Wild Card spot – Joey Logano’s No. 22 for one – with the No. 56, driven by Martin Truex Jr. holding the tiebreaker based on quality of finishes.
Next up is Bristol Motor Speedway, on Saturday night, August 24th, with television coverage beginning at 7:30pm ET on ABC.